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Maryland Looks To Make Late-season Run: Nebraska, Rutgers This Week

After losing a close one at Penn State last Wednesday, Maryland managed to rebound with a 73-57 home win over Northwestern on Saturday. The result moved Mark Turgeon’s team to 17-10 overall and 6-8 in Big Ten play, and while earning a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament would be extremely difficult to do Maryland has positioned itself to avoid playing on the first day with a good finish to the regular season. That begins Tuesday night in Lincoln, with Maryland visiting a Nebraska squad that’s playing its best basketball of the season at just the right time.

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Tim Miles’ team has won five straight and seven of their last eight games, and while none of those results (Rutgers (twice), Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota) will do much for Nebraska’s NCAA tournament resume it has put the Cornhuskers in a position where it can continue to boost their overall win total. Nebraska didn’t do much in non-conference play, with its best win coming against Boston College in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and given the perceived strength of the Big Ten they’ll likely have to rely on a high win total unless they earn the league’s automatic bid at Madison Square Garden.

That all being said, Nebraska finds itself in position to earn a double-bye in the conference tournament thanks to an offense that’s led by guard James Palmer Jr. and a defense that from an efficiency standpoint ranks amongst the best in the Big Ten in conference play.

Palmer’s averaging 19.6 points per game in conference play, and he’s also just ahead of point guard Glynn Watson for the team lead in assists. Palmer, Watson and Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland are the three players averaging double figures in conference play for Nebraska, but they aren’t the only players Maryland has to be concerned with Tuesday night. Sophomore Isaiah Roby, who’s averaging 8.5 points and a team-best 6.3 rebounds per game in conference play, has scored in double figures in three of the last four games. That includes his scoring a career-high 21 points while also grabbing eight rebounds in last Tuesday’s win at Minnesota.

In conference games Roby’s shooting 62.5 percent from the field, and in all games 46.5 percent of his field goal attempts have come at the rim according to hoop-math.com. What’s also helped Roby is his ability to get to the foul line, as he’s ranked second in the Big Ten in conference-only free throw rate. Palmer, Watson and Copeland do the majority of the playmaking for Nebraska, but Roby is a player who’s developing into a consistent option for Tim Miles.

Efficiency-wise Nebraska’s in the middle of the Big Ten on the offensive end of the floor, but generally speaking they don’t turn the ball over and they’re one of the best teams in the conference with regards to getting to the foul line. And once there the Huskers take advantage, as they’re third in the Big Ten in free throw percentage (75.6 percent in conference games). Defensively, as noted above Nebraska is one of the league’s best as they rank third in the Big Ten in conference-only efficiency. They defend shots both inside and outside of the three-point line reasonably well, leading the Big Ten in three-point percentage defense (29.4 percent), and they’re second in the league in blocked shots (5.4 per game).

If there’s a concern for Nebraska it’s finishing those defensive possessions with a rebound, as they’re dead last in the Big Ten in defensive rebound percentage (65.3). During this current win streak Nebraska has held three of its five opponents to offensive rebounding percentages below 35 percent, and while that wouldn’t be a big deal for most teams it represents progress (to a certain extent) for the Huskers. The exception: Rutgers, as the Scarlet Knights posted offensive rebounding percentages of 43.5 and 43.8 percent in their losses to Nebraska. If anything, that shows just how bad Rutgers has been offensively this season.

With Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kevin Huerter continuing to lead the way offensively, picking up a win in one of the Big Ten’s toughest road environments will come down to receiving contributions from the supporting cast and keeping Nebraska off the foul line. If there’s one thing Maryland’s done well defensively in conference play it’s keep teams off the foul line, as they’re second in the Big Ten in defensive free throw rate. And there’s also the turnover factor, with Maryland being ranked ninth in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2) and Nebraska right behind the Terps in tenth (1.1).

Nebraska will be favored and rightfully so given their current run of play and the venue, but this could be another down-to-the-wire game for Maryland. The question is whether or not they can make the plays needed to win a game like this on the road.

Following Tuesday’s matchup with the Huskers, Maryland will return for its penultimate home game of the season with Rutgers visiting College Park on Saturday. While Steve Pikiell’s team continues to make strides — albeit small ones — from a competitive standpoint, this team is absolutely brutal offensively. Efficiency-wise this is the Big Ten’s worst offense by a large margin (and in all games they’re 350th out of 351 Division I teams), and they’ve haven’t shot the ball particularly well from anywhere on the court. But Rutgers competes, which results in extra scoring opportunities on the offensive glass. Rutgers has rebounded 29.8 percent of its missed shots in conference play, which ranks fifth in the Big Ten.

And when you can’t shoot with great consistency, as Rutgers is last in overall field goal percentage (37.0) and 13th in three-point percentage (29.9) those extra possessions are critical. Five Scarlet Knights have at least 18 offensive rebounds in conference play, led by senior forward Deshawn Freeman who has 34. Freeman and guards Corey Sanders and Geo Baker get the majority of the shots, with the trio having attempted at least 150 shots apiece (Sanders tops with 213) in conference play. By comparison, no other Rutgers player has attempted more than 83 shots (Issa Thiam) against Big Ten competition.

More often than not Rutgers’ offense boils down to whether or not Sanders or Baker can make a play on the perimeter, with Freeman getting his opportunities (with 48.8 percent of those coming at the rim) to score as well. Defending Rutgers comes down to two simple things: can Maryland keep Sanders from getting on a roll, and can they complete their defensive possessions with rebounds? Do both of those things, and Maryland should have enough to take care of the Scarlet Knights.

Defensively Rutgers does not back down, which should be helped by the return of senior guard Mike Williams. Having missed eight games with an ankle injury, Williams played 16 minutes in the team’s loss at Nebraska on Saturday. His toughness is a key factor for Rutgers, and the more he can play the better for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers is around the middle of the Big Ten in multiple defensive categories, but the exception is the turnover department. In conference play the Scarlet Knights have forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of the opposition’s possessions, which ranks third, and the team is also ranked third in steal percentage (9.3).

Rutgers has to play aggressively to force those turnovers, given the team’s struggles on the offensive end of the floor. Maryland’s almost gone back and forth when it comes to turnovers in conference play; while there’s been improvement there are still times when the issues from non-conference play creep up. To avoid what would be a bad loss, Maryland has to avoid the absent-minded errors that can get them in trouble.

 

A good week for Maryland would be a sweep, which means the team has to get over its road issues Tuesday night in Lincoln. However with just one true road victory to its credit this season, at Illinois, that could prove to be a tough ask for this group.

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Raphielle Johnson

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.

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