7:00 PM EST, FS1 – Line: Maryland -7.5, Over/Under: 131
A key Big 10 Battle takes centerstage tonight, as the newly-crowned No. 9 Maryland Terrapins play host to the upstart Rutgers Scarlet Knights, with both teams looking to make their play for the league in this affair from XFINITY Center in College Park, Maryland. One of the best stories of the College Basketball Season thus far has got to be Rutgers (16-6, 7-4 in Big 10), who have come out of nowhere to became a major player in the deepest conference in America. Think about this for a moment, folks; the Scarlet Knights were coming off thirteen consecutive losing campaigns, including each of their first five since transitioning to the Big 10 back in 2014, but at 7-4 in league play find themselves just one game out of First Place. Indeed, if you’re looking for a Coach of the Year candidate, look no further than Steve Pikiell, who now in his fourth season with the program has them where he envisioned them upon arriving in 2016. Originally one of Jim Calhoun’s chief lieutenants at Connecticut, the 52-Year Old emerged following eleven largely successful years at Stoney Brook where he led the Seawolves to four American East Conference Championships, including their first and only trip to the NCAA Tournament (2016). Make no mistake, Pikiell’s first three years in New Brunswick were far from easy, with the school managing a disappointing 44-54 record (.449), but this season has seen the groundwork that he and his Coaching Staff had laid begin to really pay off. As we mentioned earlier, Rutgers is currently Fourth in the Big 10, a conference that many expect to get as many as ten different teams in the NCAA Tournament come March, and before last weekend’s narrow 63-69 defeat to Michigan at Madison Square Garden, were ranked 24th in the AP Poll, the first time that they could say that in forty-one years. Defense has been the key for this group, allowing just 61.1 Points per Game (17th Overall) on 39.3% shooting from the field (3rd in Big 10), including 45.7% from within the arc (6th in Big 10) and 30.1% beyond it (3rd in Big 10), while securing 39.8 Rebounds (2nd in Big 10). This side also possesses quality depth, with nine different players logging eleven minutes on average, led by a pair of Sophomores, Ron Harper Jr. (11.6 PTS, 42.7% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 1.1 AST, 18.5 PER) and Myles Johnson (9.0 PTS, 65.9% FG, 8.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.6 BLK, 25.4 PER). The former has emerged as the driving force behind their success, with the versatile Swingman filling up the box score with 11.6 Points per Game, 5.8 Rebounds, 1.1 Assists, 0.9 Steals, and 0.8 Blocks, while the latter has anchored the Defense in the Paint, leading the team in both Rebounding (8.0) and Blocks (1.6). However, where this team has struggled this season has been on the offensive end of the court, where things rarely come easy for them. On the season, the Knights are averaging just 71.2 Points per Game (185th Overall) on 45.1% shooting from the floor (104th Overall), and within league play they’ve ranked in the bottom half in a slew of categories, including Points (68.2), Field Goal Percentage (42.4%), Three-Point Field Goals (5.5), Three-Point Percentage (31.3%), Assists (12.0), and Turnovers (11.1). These weaknesses were on full display in that aforementioned meeting with the Wolverines, in which they netted a dismal 32.5% of their attempts from the field, including 6-of-24 from downtown (25.0%), committing more Turnovers (9) than Assists (6). With that said, they managed to rally back from sizable deficits on a number of occasions, erasing a 16-point lead in the Second Half to cut the lead to 65-63 with 19.2 seconds left to play, but would get no closer. As they have throughout the term, Pikiell’s troops overcame their shooting woes by outworking their opponent on the offensive glass, where they established a commanding 20-4 advantage, which afforded them thirty-six more Field Goal Attempts, including many Second-Chance Points. With both Harper and Johnson struggling to make an impact, fellow Sophomore, Montez Mathis (7.6 PTS, 39.3% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 13.8 PER), led the way with a season-high Seventeen Points on 7-of-15 shooting (46.7%), Eight Rebounds, and Two Assists and Steals apiece. The Baltimore native will look to remain in form (12.0 PTS, 4.7 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.3 STL last three games ) as he and his teammates head to College Park in a game that is sure to be an absolute defensive bloodbath. Under Pikiell, Rutgers has yet to defeat Maryland in four meetings, losing by an average of 14.0 Points, including last year’s lone affair, a 63-77 defeat at Louis Brown Athletic Center.
Meanwhile, what a difference two good weeks has made for Maryland (17-4, 7-3 in Big 10), whose four-game winning streak within the loaded Big 10 has seen them make the biggest leap in the AP Poll this week, rising from No. 15 to No. 9. Of course, the Terrapins spent most of the first half of the campaign ranked in the Top-10, winning their first ten games before suffering back-to-back losses which caused them to slide down the Polls. However, it’s clear that the voters value the Big 10 highly, with road victories over the likes of Northwestern (76-66) and Indiana (77-76), followed by last Tuesday’s impressive 82-72 win at home over No. 18 Iowa, vaulting them back into the realm of the nation’s elite. However, it’s not just on the national scene in which Mark Turgeon’s charges are making moves, it’s in the Big 10 as well where they’ve pulled within a half-game of First Place behind Michigan State and Illinois, both of which they will be facing in the coming two weeks. Similar to their opponent tonight, this is a team that relies on their prowess on the defensive end of the court, allowing 62.2 Points per Game (28th Overall) on 40.2% shooting from the field (4th in Big 10), including 44.7% from within the arc (5th in Big 10) and 31.3% beyond it (6th in Big 10). With that said, where the Terps differ is that they defend at a high level without fouling, which is really rather remarkable when you consider that this team is neither deep nor very experienced. Indeed, Turgeon has a roster featuring mostly Sophomores, with only six players logging an average of ten minutes, which speaks to both their conditioning and discipline that they rarely succumb to fouling the opposition. Maryland has committed the fewest fouls in the conference (15.3), which has led to the fewest Free-Throws attempted (12.7) and made (9.7) by their opponents. Sophomore Forward, Jalen Smith (15.3 PTS, 54.0% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 9.8 REB, 2.3 BLK, 30.2 PER), has been a difference-maker in the Paint, leading the team in Rebounding (9.8) and Blocks (2.3), while also developing into a reliable scorer within that area of the court, averaging 15.3 Points per Game on an efficient 54.0% shooting, and even showing the ability to step out and hit the Three (41.2%). Though the collective development of their youth has served as the fulcrum for their success, that’s not to say that they haven’t been guided by an experienced hand, which is where Senior Point Guard, Anthony Cowan Jr. (16.2 PTS, 38.8% FG, 32.5% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 20.3 PER), has stepped in. The veteran floor general has been a steadying presence in the Backcourt for the Terrapins, particularly on the offensive end of late which is where they’ve shown the most improvement. Cowan has averaged 5.8 Assists over the past four games, while putting forth a career-high Thirty-One Points in the aforementioned victory over Iowa last week, netting 9-of-15 attempts from the field (60.0%), including 3-of-8 from downtown (37.5%), along with 10-of-11 Free-Throws (90.9%). Simply put, if Turgeon can get performances like that out of his Point Guard, who also had Six Rebounds and Assists apiece, then this team should be considered a real threat come March. With Smith playing like a bonafide animal, totaling Eighteen Points, Fourteen rebounds, and Five Blocks, and fellow Sophomore, Aaron Wiggins (10.9 PTS, 36.0% FG, 32.2% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 13.9 PER), adding Fourteen Points off the Bench, the Terrapins enjoyed arguably their most impressive showing in besting the Hawkeyes. The hosts shot 45.6% from the field, including 19-of-32 from within the arc (59.4%), knocked down 23-of-26 Free-Throws (88.5%), all the while relegating the visitors to 36.2% shooting, including 8-of-24 from beyond the arc (33.3%), and outrebounding them 41-33. It certainly helped that the Big 10’s leading scorer, Luka Garza (), was limited to just 24:00 of play due to foul trouble, which allowed Maryland’s bigs to have their way in the painted area. Turgeon had to have been elated with how his team responded to their previous meeting with Iowa, who absolutely trounced them in a 67-49 affair back in early January. On that day, the Terps couldn’t throw the basketball into the ocean, shooting a miserable 32.7% from the floor, including 4-of-22 from long-range (18.2%), and committing far more Turnovers (17) than Assists (11), with Cowan in particular struggling to come up with just Nine Points on 2-of-10 shooting (20.0%).