Terps Basketball: 2019 & The Remainder Of The Big Ten Season Arrives
The Maryland Terrapins basketball team that enters the first week of play in 2016 has to be looked at as a bit of an unknown quantity – maybe even to themselves. The Terps have proven that they can plan with anybody in their performances against good competition but, given the fact that they do not have a win to show for those efforts, they really haven’t had the kind of gritty, psyche-hardening win that would help to propel them into Big Ten conference play. Opportunities to get some of those wins will come fast and furious now that 2019 is upon us.
It starts with Nebraska…
I suspected before the season that the Huskers would be a top tier team in the conference and they’ve nothing to dispel the notion. They have the luxury of three senior starters and offer up the most experienced starting five in the Big Ten – if not most of college hoops. Their starting five can matchup with any of the real good teams in America and their defensive stats will make even casual fans do a double take.
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They are currently holding opponents to 57 points per game on 37% shooting from the field and 25% from behind the three point line. Nebraska opponents are only making 4 threes per game. Given how many of those are being shot in college basketball in any given game on any given night that number is astounding. They’re accomplishing that with a bunch of guys that most have identified as offensive oriented players. Senior wing – and Maryland native- James Palmer, Jr. leads the team with 19 points per game and almost singlehandedly won the only game between these two teams last season when he erupted for 24 second half points in a 70-66 Nebraska win. He is complimented by seniors Glynn Watson, Jr (13 ppg) and Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland (14.4 ppg). Together they lead a starting five that is experienced and versatile.
One would think that Maryland will enter this game on a bit of an emotional uptick given its second half performance against Radford this past weekend. They ran offense flawlessly despite the absence of freshman Jalen Smith and were able to convert all sorts of opportunities as a result. The reason it happened the way it did was because of Maryland continually pounding the ball inside to center Bruno Fernando. The double and triple teams that forced allowed Fernando to find open targets at will and he did just that.
I believe I have written this before and it bears repeating; I could not be more impressed by the evolution of Fernando’s game and his grasp of his role on this team. Last year it was 50/50 if he could play more than 20 minutes per game because foul trouble always seemed to be so imminent. Consider this…in the ten short months since last season ended with a thud at Madison Square Garden, Bruno has added multiple offensive moves – including a face up jumper and capable three point shot and his free throw shooting is better right now than it’s ever been. Those are just the offensive improvements. He has stopped giving away fouls playing pick and roll defense on the perimeter and he may just be the best rim protector in the country. Yet the single best part of the improvement is how he has totally become a student of the game. He gets it. After the Radford win we asked him on the radio broadcast about his four assists for the game and he went on at length about all the tape he had been watching and he completely understood that the direction the double and triple teams he was getting would dictate which Terp players would be open at the three point line and where. You never have enough of your guys doing their homework like that and it’s especially important when it’s your best player is doing it. His current averages of 14+ points and 10 rebounds per game don’t come close to representing his impact on games.
Fernando and Smith have led the Terps to a pretty impressive rebounding differential this year – 12 more than opponents on a per game basis. They’ll have their hands full against Nebraska’s interior but the matchups are favorable. Perhaps even more important than that is how the Maryland backcourt will do against Palmer and Watson. Palmer is a really prolific scorer and puts points up in bunches. Watson has made a bunch of big shots against Maryland in games past and seems to like to have the ball in his hands in critical possessions. On the offensive end the Terps will need to make enough shots from the perimeter to keep Nebraska honest on the inside.
As any season progresses the coaching staff is responsible for continually evaluating and re-evaluating strategies that they use. In the six weeks since the start of the season the Terps have gone 10-3 but have had painfully close losses in each of the games played against like competition – Virginia, Purdue and Seton Hall. When your plan doesn’t work once it can be an anomaly. When it happens twice it becomes a concern. A third time constitutes a trend. My guess is that Mark Turgeon and his staff has looked at the common threads in those losses. A number of offensive possessions down the stretch in each of those games saw the guards playing catch until the last few seconds of the possession and then a difficult shot being taken. Either the execution has to improve or the strategy change. Perhaps that’s the reason that – in spite of the double and triple teams Fernando saw against Radford- the Terps kept feeding the big dog. That is as it should be.
It’s not hyperbole to say that this week is the biggest week of the season to date for this Terps team. After the game against the Huskers on Wednesday they will travel to sold-out Rutgers on Saturday afternoon. A good week will not only improve the record accordingly, it will be a nice springboard into the cauldron of a 20 game Big Ten season. More importantly it will provide some important answers to any questions that this Maryland team may have about itself.