Terps prepare to face resurgent Rutgers
After wrapping up a five-game stretch in which it played four on the road with three straight wins, No. 15 Maryland enters February with a 17-4 overall record (7-3 Big Ten). Mark Turgeon’s team is just a game out of first place, and depending upon the result of Illinois’ game at Iowa Sunday afternoon could be tied for first in the loss column to start the week. This sets up to be a big week for Maryland, which exacted a measure of revenge on Iowa on Thursday, with a home game against Rutgers Wednesday night to be followed by a showdown with the Fighting Illini on February 7.
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Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith did much of the heavy lifting in the 82-72 win over Iowa, with for former going off for a career-high 31 points and the latter posting a line of 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. Cowan also accounted for six rebounds and six assists with just two turnovers, and that assist-to-turnover ratio has been key during the Terps’ three-game win streak. During this stretch Cowan is averaging 5.3 assists and 1.0 turnovers per game, to go along with 20.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 0.7 steals.
The three-point shooting may still be an issue for Cowan, but he’s made up for it by shooting nearly 58% inside of the arc and getting up an average of 8.7 free throw attempts per game over Maryland’s last three wins. As a team Maryland has averaged nearly 79 points per game during this stretch, and the foul line has been a key factor. They’ve scored an average of 20 points per from the charity stripe, nearly ten points better than the opposition (10.7 ppg). When the perimeter shots aren’t falling it is best to continue to attack the paint, which pays off in both points in the paint and trips to the foul line. Against Iowa, Maryland outscored the Hawkeyes 34-24 in the paint and 23-14 from the foul line.
It’s also worth noting that Maryland, which has been battling through depth issues, has managed to keep its best players out of foul trouble during this win streak. With an average of 16.0 fouls per game, Maryland has committed four fewer than their opponents (Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa). Going no deeper than seven players the Terps don’t have much margin for error, as five of the seven players that hit double figures in minutes Thursday night played at least 30. And that aspect of Wednesday’s matchup with the Scarlet Knights is going to be critical, as Steve Pikiell’s team goes nine deep.
The turnaround in Piscataway has been impressive, but for those who are familiar with Pikiell it doesn’t qualify as a shock. He stays on an even keel and his team reflects that, as the program has progressed from Big Ten doormat to a formidable team on its way to Rutgers’ first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991. Seven of the nine average at least 7.6 points per game, with Ron Harper Jr. and Akwasi Yeboah being the lone double-digit scorers. Point guard Geo Baker is the floor general and big shot taker, while center Myles Johnson has been the anchor in the middle. The contributions of players such as Jacob Young, Caleb McConnell and freshman Paul Mulcahy shouldn’t be overlooked either, as all have had their moments this season.
Offensive balance and a stingy defense have been the hallmarks for Rutgers this season, as in conference play they rank third in the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency and turnover percentage and fourth in effective field goal percentage per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Two other things that Rutgers does well defensively is defend the three and keep opponents off the offensive glass. Given the fact that Maryland has been a middle-of-the-pack team in both of those areas against Big Ten opposition, it’s better to focus on the foul line when looking at this game.
Maryland is one of the best teams in the conference in both getting to the foul line (second in free throw rate) and keeping its opponents off the line (first in defensive free throw rate). Rutgers, on the other hand, ranks seventh in offensive free throw rate and 10th in defensive free throw rate. Add in the fact that the Scarlet Knights are making just 64.3% of their free throws, and that may be where this game is won (or lost) Wednesday night.
The keys for Maryland in this one are quite simple. First and foremost, Smith needs to stay out of foul trouble. Rutgers does bring senior Shaq Carter off the bench for an average of just over 11 minutes per game, but this will be more about Smith contending with Johnson (and vice versa). While Maryland’s big man is averaging 3.0 fouls per 40 minutes on the season, Johnson is at 4.0/40. What Maryland will also need is for Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala to remain confident in their respective perimeter shots.
Neither one may be shooting the ball all that well from deep, with Wiggins at 32.2% and Ayala at 25.0%, but the last thing that the Terps can afford to have happen is for either to pass up quality looks. When a player or team is struggling from deep the immediate reaction of many is to point at the “bad” looks, but turning down the good ones can also be problematic. These guys aren’t going to turn into the “Splash Brothers,” but maintaining a willingness to take the shots as the become available helps keep defenses honest in how they defend Cowan and Smith.
Given the way that both teams have played defensively, don’t expect a shootout on par with Maryland’s win over Iowa. And as noted above, the foul line could be what determines the outcome in this matchup of Big Ten contenders.
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.