WHO: Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-5, 9-3) @ Maryland Terrapins (21-2, 12-0)
WHAT: Women's basketball B1G Conference game
WHERE: Xfinity Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Md.
WHEN: Tuesday, February 10, 2015 9:00 p.m. ET
WATCH: In Person
I am beginning to feel like the boy in Aesop's famous fable -- you know -- the one who cried wolf. Thus far this season, only two Big Ten teams have finished a game within fewer than 10 points of Maryland. Rutgers, which lost by 12 to the Terps on their home floor just under a month ago, is not one of those teams. Yet, game after game as I write my preview, I see possible danger ahead for the Terrapins. Tuesday night's game against Rutgers at Xfinity Center is no exception.
Here are the principal dangers:
Maryland is playing their fourth game in nine days. Three of those will have come against quality opponents. Rutgers sits at No. 37 in RPI, is third in the conference standings, just one game behind Iowa, and is an outstanding team on the road where they have lost only once this season.
Maryland is playing their fourth game in nine days. Head coach Brenda Frese has made more liberal use of her depth over this stretch than she has at any time since the start of conference play. Still, fatigue is a concern for the coach. In her post game remarks after Sunday's win over Nebraska she said, "Mentally we were not the same team we typically are. I don't know if that's a fatigue factor, but it's not a reason. We've got to be able to lock in for a better 40 minutes." Later she added, "I thought our legs looked short and heavy." C. Vivian Stringer is a Hall of Fame coach. She will have noticed that and, until they prove capable, will try to force Maryland to be a jump shooting team.
Since the first meeting - Rutgers' offense
Rutgers hasn't lost since falling, 71-59, to Maryland, but their offense has been anything but impressive over that six-game span. In their first six conference games, the Scarlet Knights scored 70.7 points per game (ppg). In the six games since, that average has dropped by eight to 62.7 ppg. Their shooting percentage has risen and fallen. Overall, the percentage is down to 39.8 from 41.4. However, their three point shooting percentage has soared from 31.1 to 40.6.
The Scarlet Knights are also doing a better job protecting the ball. In the first six conference games they turned over the ball an average of 15.3 times per game. Since then, they have reduced that to 12.4 -- second best in the conference over that stretch.
In the two six game blocks, Rutgers has maintained the same scoring efficiency at 0.93 points per possession (PPP). Because of the increased accuracy of their three point shooting, their effective field goal percentage (Efg%) has increased from 43.2 to 45.4.
Since the first meeting - Rutgers' defense
If the Terps struggled against Nebraska's defense, Rutgers stands to pose an even stiffer challenge because it's on the defensive side of the court that the Scarlet Knights have truly stepped up their game. In their first six B1G games, teams scored 69.5 ppg and at a fairly efficient 0.92 PPP. During their six-game winning streak, Rutgers is conceding only 55.2 ppg (about 6 better than Nebraska) and teams are scoring only 0.79 PPP. Both of those averages are the best in the conference for this range of games.
After exceeding 90 points against Michigan and Iowa, Maryland's scoring dropped off to 77 at Penn State and 59 against Nebraska. In addition, the Cornhuskers held the typically efficient Terrapins to 0.89 PPP, considerably below their season average of 1.10.
Players to watch
In the preview of the first contest, I focused on Betnijah Laney (#44) and Tyler Scaife (#3). Since that time, the Scarlet Knights' third scoring option 6'1" junior forward Kahleah Copper (#2) has elevated her game and become the top option for Rutgers scoring at a 16.3 ppg clip. Laney still averages a double-double (15.7/11.5) and Scaife lit up Minnesota for 28 points in a 66-61 win. The three players account for 73 percent of Rutgers' scoring. The offensive wild card could be Cynthia Hernandez. The 5'7" junior led Rutgers with 17 points at Wisconsin and has made 7-of-11 from behind the arc during the Scarlet Knights' winning streak.
The big finish
As Malina Howard noted after Sunday's game, the Terps can expect a physical contest with the Scarlet Knights as the teams embark on the final third of the conference regular season. Maryland does have a handful of elements in their favor.
First, the Terps are simply deeper and more talented than Rutgers.
Second, Maryland is playing at home where the Terps, at 12-0, are even better than the Scarlet Knights' 10-1 road record.
Third, Rutgers is a bit less inclined to slow the pace of the game than Nebraska was and Maryland generally plays better when they can play at a moderate to fast pace.
Fourth, Rutgers is not a very good offensive team. Although 6'4" Rachael Hollivay gives them some size inside, she has not been a very productive offensive player. This should help Maryland's defense. As a team, they like to switch all ball screens and not give a lot of help to their post defenders.
Fifth, Rutgers also played on Sunday and they played a road game at Michigan. So the Scarlet Knights have to cope with not merely the short turnaround between games, but two trips exceeding 500 miles.
Once again, the statistical models predict a Terrapins rout. The GAMER system I have referenced throughout the season predicts a 75.0 percent probability that Maryland will win and it posits a comfortable double-digit victory for the home standing Terps.
Thus far, the GAMER model has impressed me with its accuracy. Leading up to the men's game at Iowa, KenPom predicted a 66 percent chance of an Iowa win and a final score of 69-65. GAMER's predictions were a 70.6 percent probability for Iowa and a 73-65 final. However, GAMER is not perfect. It predicted a 60 percent likelihood that Michigan would beat Rutgers on Sunday. The final score: Rutgers 57, Michigan 50.