Big Week Ahead for Maryland
Last week was an interesting one for Maryland, which remained in the AP Top 25 following their home loss to a very good Purdue team. Three nights after that home defeat Maryland didn’t bring the energy needed to Penn State, with the Nittany Lions knocking them off as a result. Following that defeat there were questions: was that simple a one-off performance, or was it the beginning of a rough spell that would eliminate Maryland from the Big Ten race?
Maryland responded as one would hope, taking care of an Ohio State team that was without its starting point guard (JaQuan Lyle) Saturday afternoon in College Park.
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On a day that saw Justin Jackson struggle offensively, scoring just three points, classmates Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter combined to score 37 points with junior Jaylen Brantley adding 11 off the bench. Maryland scored 1.26 points per possession in the 86-77 victory, with the result keeping them within striking distance of first-place Wisconsin (thanks in large part to the Badgers’ loss to Northwestern). At minimum, Mark Turgeon’s team enters this week well positioned, with six league games remaining, to earn a double bye in next month’s Big Ten tournament.
Given how good they’ve been on the road, Maryland can position itself to potentially win the conference. But it won’t be easy, as they face a two-game road trip beginning with their game at Northwestern Wednesday night.
Northwestern’s coming off of their aforementioned win at Wisconsin, which added a signature win to the résumé of a program that has never reached the NCAA tournament. Chris Collins’ Wildcats have played their last three games without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey, averaging 60 points per game in losses to Purdue and Illinois before scoring 66 in their seven-point win over the Badgers. Whether or not Lindsey is fully recovered from the illness that has sidelined him remains to be seen, but even without him on the floor Northwestern is a more than formidable team.
Junior point guard Bryant McIntosh is one of the nation’s most underrated floor generals, a player who throughout the season has displayed a good feel for the game. McIntosh’s shooting percentages may not be that great, as he’s making just 38.3 percent of his field goals and 28.6 percent of his attempts from three, but his ability to get teammates the ball in spots where they need it to be most effective more than makes up for that. How Maryland’s point guards deal with McIntosh defensively will be the key to Wednesday’s game in Evanston.
Fellow junior Vic Law is averaging 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and sophomore center Dererk Pardon is averaging 8.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Both scored 11 in Sunday’s win at Wisconsin, supplementing McIntosh’s 25-point output on 10-for-23 shooting.
This Northwestern team is more athletic than past outfits, but more importantly they play with a confidence rarely seen from past squads. With the program’s first NCAA tournament bid well within reach, the question now is whether or not Northwestern can remain in the moment. That sets up for an interesting challenge for Maryland, with the Terps having lost just one true road game this season (Penn State). And while it’s fair to wonder if Maryland underestimated Penn State last week, that shouldn’t be a concern against Northwestern.
This upcoming road swing with games at Northwestern and Wisconsin has the potential to be a season-defining one for Maryland. Following those two games three of Maryland’s final four are in College Park (the lone road game is at Purdue), and a sweep of the Wildcats and Badgers would increase the chances of winning the Big Ten. Those wins are also key from an NCAA tournament standpoint, as it became quite clear that the selection committee isn’t too thrilled with the Big Ten’s lack of marquee non-conference wins.
Indiana, a team headed in the wrong direction, was responsible for the league’s two best non-conference wins at it took care of Kansas and North Carolina in the season’s first month. Outside of those victories, the Big Ten’s best non-conference wins (RPI-wise) are Michigan’s over SMU, Purdue’s over Notre Dame, Northwestern’s over Dayton and Maryland’s over Oklahoma State. That’s certain to have an impact, not only in selection but in seeding as well. None of the league’s top three teams heard their names called during Saturday’s NCAA tournament top 16 seed announcement, which shows just how much work the Big Ten has to do between now and Selection Sunday.
Winning can change that, and in the case of Maryland this week’s road trip represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Win both, and multiple doors open for Mark Turgeon’s Terps.