Terps Begin Pivotal Stretch in Madison
Just three days after suffering its worst loss of the season to date, No. 21 Maryland (17-5, 8-3 Big Ten) rebounded Tuesday night with a 70-52 win over Northwestern. The result, which Maryland essentially sealed during the first ten minutes of the second half, ended a two-game skid and it came at a very important time for Mark Turgeon’s program. After splitting games against Illinois and Northwestern the schedule gets a lot tougher, as Maryland hits the road for four of its next five and the lone home game is against a ranked Purdue team that boasts one of the nation’s best players in junior guard Carsen Edwards.
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First on the docket is a matchup Friday night with No. 24 Wisconsin (15-6, 7-3), which going into Wednesday’s games was tied with Maryland in the loss column. The two teams have already met once this season, with the Terps picking up the 64-60 win January 14. Since then Greg Gard’s team has won four straight, including a ten-point home win over then-No. 2 Michigan five days after its loss to Maryland. A lot will be on the line in the rematch, as both teams harbor hopes of at the very least securing a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament.
While it wouldn’t be impossible to still pull this off with a loss Friday night, the road to a double-bye gets a lot tougher for the loser of this game. Winning in Madison is no easy task, that’s for sure; but for Maryland a win Friday would go a long way towards cementing the team’s status as one of the Big Ten’s best while also keeping the hopes of factoring into the conference title race alive.
Something that Maryland was able to do in the first meeting between the two teams was keep Ethan Happ in check, as the senior forward was limited to ten points (5-of-10 FGs), eight rebounds, three assists and one blocked shot in 31 minutes. While the All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year candidate isn’t the best free throw shooter, as he’s making just 47.1% of his attempts on the season, for him to not even attempt a free throw in the first meeting is noteworthy. The last time Happ did not attempt a free throw in a game prior to the January 14 meeting was December 23, 2017 in a win over Green Bay.
Both Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith were able to avoid foul trouble in that matchup, which is obviously the desired outcome every game. With Happ’s impact limited in the first half the Terps were able to hold Wisconsin to 15 points in the first half, and ten of those points were scored in the paint. Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten in three-point percentage, as the Badgers are making 39.8% of their attempts in conference play, but the team is tenth in attempts (191). Against Maryland, Wisconsin attempted 30 (22 in the second half as the team mounted its rally). While the margin may have dictated that, this isn’t the way in which the Badgers truly want to operate on the offensive end of the floor.
Wisconsin’s three-point attempt rate of 50.0% in that matchup was the team’s third-highest mark of the season, behind Coppin State (52.5%) and Savannah State (51.5%). Also, Wisconsin’s free throw rate of .050 was its second-lowest in Big Ten play this season, with its win over Penn State being the only game in which the Badgers had a lower number (.049). The difference on the offensive end of the floor for Wisconsin in that game was the fact that it shot a lot better from the field overall (49.2%) and from three (50.0%), finishing with an effective field goal percentage of 55.7%.
Limiting Wisconsin’s quality shot opportunities will be key, but so will turnovers (usually the case for any team, but especially for Maryland). After the Terps scored 11 points on seven Wisconsin turnovers in the first half the tables were turned in the second, as Wisconsin scored 11 points off of five Maryland turnovers. Maryland slowed to a crawl offensively in the second half, shooting just 26.3% from the field with the foul line (18-of-22) being the team’s saving grace.
Counting on the charity stripe can be tricky on the road, so Maryland’s offensive execution will need to be up to par throughout this upcoming stretch of games. That being said the Terps are ranked first in the conference in free throws made and free throw percentage and second in free throw attempts, so getting to the foul line hasn’t been an issue with Anthony Cowan Jr. and the aforementioned tandem of Fernando and Smith leading the way. So once again we’re back to discussing turnovers, with Maryland last in the conference in turnovers committed (151) in Big Ten games.
After posting turnover percentages of 20 percent or higher in its first two league games, Maryland has either reached or surpassed that mark just twice (at Ohio State, vs. Illinois) since Big Ten play resumed at the beginning of the month. And more often that not the turnovers are of Maryland’s own doing rather than what the opposition is throwing at them defensively, with Illinois being the most noteworthy exception.
While Cowan’s individual turnover percentage in Big Ten play is 15.6%, both Fernando (21.9) and freshman Eric Ayala (22.7) have numbers north of 20%. In the first meeting with Wisconsin both Cowan (20.2) and Fernando (20.5) hit the 20 percent mark, with the former committing three turnovers in the second half. And with this likely to be a low-possession affair, Maryland cannot afford to have its best offensive options struggle when it comes to taking care of the basketball.
Friday’s game in Madison will set the tone for this upcoming five-game stretch for Maryland; while the team will need some help to get back into the Big Ten title race there’s enough talent to make that possibility a reality. But if the Terps can’t keep the unforced errors to a minimum, it will be asking for trouble.