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Maryland men’s basketball vs. Northwestern preview (part two)

Maryland looks to avenge its loss to the Wildcats on Dec. 5.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Maryland men’s basketball returns to action on the road against Northwestern on Wednesday night as the Terps look to break a three-game skid in a rematch with the Wildcats.

Maryland is 0-4 in Big Ten play this season, with one of those losses coming against Northwestern back on Dec. 5 in College Park. Maryland will look to get its revenge on the road and rebound from a tough one-point defeat against Wisconsin on Sunday.

Maryland trailed by as many as 21 against the Badgers but came back to take a lead in the second half. It was a back-and-forth battle for much of the final 20 minutes, but Wisconsin took a late lead that it never surrendered, coming away with the 70-69 win.

“I really like the resolve of the young men we have on our roster,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “We’ve continued to go out and battle and fight.”

The Terps’ slow starts and inability to close games continue to be a problem as they search for their first Big Ten win of the season. A promising note for Maryland is the high-level production guard Eric Ayala has displayed in recent games. Ayala was scoreless in the first half on Sunday but exploded for 19 points in the latter half.

Maryland also got some of its best bench play of the season against Wisconsin as transfer guard Xavier Green had a career-high 10 points.

The Terps’ game against Northwestern tips off at 9 p.m. and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.

What happened last time

When these two teams met up over a month ago on Dec. 5, it was Maryland’s first game since former head coach Mark Turgeon and the program parted ways and interim head coach Danny Manning took over. It was an emotional stretch for the Terps, and this game to open up Big Ten play was exactly that.

Maryland lost that first go-around 67-61. The game was tight for much of the first half and it wasn't until the final five minutes in the second half that Northwestern began to pull away.

The game followed a difficult 48-hour stretch for Maryland that included multiple emotional team meetings since Turgeon told the group he would not be on the sidelines the rest of the season. That certainly could have contributed to the performance Maryland displayed at home that Sunday.

Other than the circumstances surrounding the game, Maryland struggled to knock down shots from anywhere on the floor. The Terps shot just 29% from the floor in that game with Ayala and Donta Scott combining for 4-of-23 shooting against the Wildcats.

“That first game against Northwestern, we started implementing some different things we haven’t done before,” Manning said. “We have a little bit better feel for some of those changes that we did make.”

What’s happened since

Maryland quickly rebounded from its Big Ten season-opening loss with a win over then-No. 20 Florida at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn a week later. It was a promising win for Maryland that the Terps looked like they could build on.

The only problem was following that win, Maryland had an over two-week holiday break with no games, so any momentum that was built in the Florida win quickly vanished.

The Terps returned to action against two weak nonconference opponents in Lehigh and Brown. Maryland won both of those games by double-digits. Last week, Maryland hopped back into Big Ten play and has struggled ever since. The Terps are in the midst of a three-game losing streak to Iowa, Illinois and No. 23 Wisconsin.

Maryland is 0-4 in conference play for the first time this century and is in desperate need of a win.

Northwestern is in a similar spot as Maryland. Since Northwestern defeated the Terps in College Park, they defeated two weak nonconference opponents. The Wildcats are also on a three-game losing streak in the conference with all close losses to No. 10 Michigan State, Penn State and No. 16 Ohio State. They are 1-3 in conference play.

Both teams are searching for a win that they hope can get them on the right track and possibly turn their season around.

Three things to watch

1. Will Maryland get off to another slow start? Maryland has been plagued by slow starts that have allowed it to crawl into massive holes against its recent opponents. The Terps have trailed by double-digits at some point through the first 10 minutes of action in its last three games. Maryland has shown no quit though, fighting its way back in the game in all three games, but it wasn't enough as Maryland lost all three. If the Terps finally want to win a game in the Big Ten, they will need to be energized from the opening tip.

2. Will Ayala and Scott continue to carry the load? A noticeable difference from the last time these two opponents faced off is Maryland’s veteran stars are playing much better offensively. Both Scott and Ayala struggled mightily against Northwestern, but in the six games since Ayala is averaging 19 points per game and Scott is averaging 13. Maryland has needed that offensive spark to crawl its way back into games, often on the backs of these two guys.

3. Can Maryland win a close game? While Maryland has shown remarkable resiliency all year, including during individual stretches in recent games when it has had to come back from large deficits. However, a big reason why the Terps are still winless in conference play is their inability to win tight games and capitalize down the stretch. Whether it's failing to get defensive stops or forcing shots down the stretch, Maryland hasn't been able to win close games. If the Terps are eventually going to start racking up wins in the Big Ten, they are going to need to win close games, starting with Northwestern on Wednesday.

“We acknowledge it, that you want to start fast, you want to finish strong and that’s something we’ve talked about and need to start doing,” Manning said. “It’s just a matter of attention to detail.”