Terps begin conference play; Purdue showdown kicks off big weekend
After going through a stretch of three games in four days, with a comfortable win over New Mexico sandwiched in between losses to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse, Maryland begins Big Ten play this weekend. For those who may not know the reason why conference play is beginning now as opposed to late December, a brief refresher.
With the expansion of the Big Ten to include Maryland and Rutgers, there was also the desire of commissioner Jim Delany to place some big events in these new areas. As a result last season’s Big Ten tournament was held in D.C., with the 2018 edition set for Madison Square Garden. The difference: Madison Square Garden is already home to a major conference tournament (Big East), which forced the Big Ten to move the dates for its tournament up a week.
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That’s why all 14 teams will be playing two conference games this weekend before going back into non-conference play. It’s a setup similar to what some smaller conferences have done over the years, and with that comes the likelihood that the teams we see this weekend could have an entirely different look when Big Ten play resumes at the end of the month. A 2-0 start is certainly the goal, but while 0-2 would certainly hurt any team harboring ambitions of contending for the Big Ten title it would not be the “death knell,” either.
For Maryland it’s opening weekend opponents are Purdue and Illinois, with the Boilermakers looking to work their way back into the national rankings after a 1-2 mark in the Battle 4 Atlantis dropped them out of the polls. The good news for Maryland is that the tougher of these two games will be at the Xfinity Center, but hopping on the plane with just one day between Purdue and Illinois could prove difficult to manage given the team’s recent schedule.
After playing three games in four days, getting a couple days to recuperate while also working on Purdue preparations was of great value to the Terps. But it isn’t as if that period was leading up to a matchup with one of the teams expected to be in the bottom half of the Big Ten pecking order; Purdue has the talent and depth needed to make a run at its second consecutive regular season conference title.
There’s no Caleb Swanigan patrolling the paint this time around, as he accounted for 26 points, ten rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots in Purdue’s 73-72 win in College Park last season, but this is an experienced group that does not lack for size. Senior Isaac Haas is a mountain of a man in the middle, and Purdue has another 7-footer in 7-foot-2 freshman Matt Haarms to call upon as well. Haas is averaging 13.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, and Haarms has come off the bench to average just over three blocked shots per night, but it’s Purdue’s perimeter options who are of greatest concern.
Sophomore Carsen Edwards continues to improve, leading the Boilermakers in scoring (17.4 ppg) while also dishing out 2.6 assists per contest. In addition to being an aggressive option on offense, Edwards can get after opposing point guards defensively as well. His matchup with Anthony Cowan Jr. will be fun to watch, and will have a major impact on the outcome. Dakota Mathias is one of the Big Ten’s best perimeter defenders, and he’s also averaging 15.8 points and a team-high 4.4 assists per game while shooting 53.5 percent from three.
Mathias, Edwards, forward Vince Edwards and P.J. Thompson have all be capable shooters this season, and while off to a slow start Ryan Cline has the ability to make perimeter shots as well. Freshman Nojel Eastern gives Purdue an athletic option off the bench, and the aforementioned Vince Edwards is a versatile forward who can be used at either the three or the four. Look for him to be matched up with Justin Jackson for much of the night, as both teams look for big games from their talented front court prospects.
The biggest key for Maryland is simple: limit the turnovers. Maryland’s turned the ball over on a quarter of its possessions this season, and simple miscues can add up as we saw in Monday’s close loss at Syracuse. Turn a couple of those possessions in which players simply lost the ball or tried to force a pass into an area that was covered, and a two-point loss can turn into a two-point win. Purdue isn’t a pressure-heavy team on defense, but the Boilermakers are more than capable of capitalizing on mistakes.
Friday’s game represents an opportunity to not only get conference play off to a positive start but to add a quality win to Maryland’s profile as well. As has been the case in Maryland’s most challenging games to date, the likes of Darryl Morsell, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson have to take better care of the basketball than they have. If they can clean that area up, the Terps should have every opportunity to avenge last year’s one-point loss to the Boilermakers.