It may have taken five games and then a double-overtime thriller against Northwestern on Wednesday night, but Maryland men’s basketball has finally captured its first win in Big Ten play this season.
The Terps collapsed late in regulation in the matchup with the Wildcats. However, they were able to get the job done in 50 minutes of basketball to secure their ninth win of the 2021-22 season to improve to 9-7.
“And you know the double overtime game, it’s 10 extra minutes of basketball in the big scheme of things, right? Yes, there’s more effort. You have to expand, there’s more mental energy that you have to lock in and focus into, but these guys are young. They’re young... but you know, they’re gonna bounce back,” interim head coach Danny Manning said when asked if his team has recovered rest-wise from the Northwestern game.
Maryland is now 1-4 in conference play with a game against Rutgers on the horizon. The matchup with the Scarlet Knights will be played in College Park on Saturday at 2 p.m. and it’ll be broadcast on Big Ten Network.
Let’s take a look at Rutgers.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (9-6, 3-2 Big Ten)
2020-21 record: 16-12 (10-10 Big Ten)
Head coach Steve Pikiell has been in charge of the Scarlet Knights’ program for the last half decade and has 30 years of coaching experience to back up his resume. He helped Rutgers return to the NCAA Tournament in the 2020-21 season, making it the first time that the Scarlet Knights have had an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991. In that tournament, Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights beat No. 7 seed Clemson in the opening round. It marked the program’s highest-seeded team that it defeated in the NCAA Tournament since 1979.
Now looking at this season, Rutgers has had quite the rollercoaster of a campaign. It has rattled off nine wins in 15 games, including wins over Purdue, Michigan and Clemson. It has also lost games to Lafayette, UMass and Penn State. The Scarlet Knights are winners of four of their last five games entering Saturday.
Players to know
Ron Harper Jr., senior guard/forward, 6-foot-6, No. 24 — Ron Harper Jr. is an experienced player who is also the Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer. He has a sharp ability to put the ball in the basket from just about anywhere on the floor. Harper Jr. averages a team-high 15.7 points per game, four more points than the next best Scarlet Knight. The last four games have been quite the up-and-down stretch for the lengthy dual-position player, he has scored two, 20, 29 and then seven in his past four games, respectively. He has the capability of taking over a game with his 44% shooting clip from three, not to mention his rebounding skills. Harper Jr. averages 6.9 rebounds per game, the second-highest mark on the roster.
Clifford Omoruyi, sophomore center, 6-foot-11, No. 11 — Maryland has had trouble defending an opponent’s best big man, and the 6-foot-11 Clifford Omoruyi fits that bill. He has the most blocks on the team with 11, the highest rebounds-per-game mark with 7.5 and he’s second on the team in scoring with 11.7 per game. Omoruyi is still a young player, but Pikiell gets the most out of him in 26.7 minutes on the floor per game. His field goal percentage, 60.2%, is easily the most efficient mark on the team.
Geo Baker, senior guard, 6-foot-4, No. 0 — There are three Scarlet Knights who average double-figures in scoring and Geo Baker rounds out that trio. In 32 minutes per game, Baker averages 11.5 points per game and has totaled the second-most assists on Rutgers, even though he’s only played in 11 games this season out of 15. He’s one of the more frequent three-point shooters as well. His 60 attempts from beyond the arc are the second-most behind Harper Jr. Baker will touch the ball early and often, and he’s one of those guys that can hurt you from just about anywhere on the court offensively.
A strong conference resume. Rutgers stands at 9-6 so far, but it has had some eye-opening wins this season, which is more than Maryland can say at the moment. The Scarlet Knights have taken down then-No. 1 Purdue on an emphatic buzzer-beater, as well as a Michigan team at home. Those wins are better than the victories Maryland has captured this season, proving that the Scarlet Knights can compete on a good day with just about any program in the Big Ten.
Winning road games. In five tries this season, Rutgers has failed to win a game in enemy territory. All nine of the team’s wins have come at home, while on the road it has lost to DePaul, Lafayette, UMass, Illinois and most recently Penn State. The loss to the Nittany Lions should be very concerning, considering the Scarlet Knights managed to put up just 49 points. Rutgers has not been the same team on the road as it has been at home, so location-wise an advantage goes to the Terps.
Three things to watch
1. Can Eric Ayala lead Maryland to another win? Senior guard Eric Ayala has flipped a switch since the beginning of the season. Counting the win over then-No. 20 Florida, Ayala has scored at least 16 points in all of his last seven games, including at least 19 points in six of his last seven. He has combined for 45 points over his last two games and he’s easily been Maryland’s best offensive player as of late. He had a career-high 26-point night in the win over Northwestern, where he managed to hit five threes, which tied his previous season-high. Ayala has shown that he can lead this team offensively and he’ll need to do it again on Saturday.
2. Will the Terps’ big men see improvement offensively? Maryland’s top-four scorers have been solid, but the play from both center Qudus Wahab and forward Julian Reese have left much to be desired lately. Wahab has scored just eight points in his last three games combined and he’s successfully connected on just two field goals in that span. Reese, on the other hand, hasn’t scored more than four points since the Terps’ win over Lehigh back on Dec. 28. Maryland’s bigs will need to get it going if it wants to survive a Big Ten that is filled with dominant big men.
3. Will Maryland be able to keep its momentum going? It’s no secret that Maryland will need to keep winning the winnable games, especially in Big Ten play, as it looks to eventually salvage its postseason hopes. It got the job done against Northwestern for its first win in conference play. With another beatable opponent in Rutgers, in a game that will be played in College Park, Maryland will need to find a way to capture another win. It simply can’t afford any more slip-ups against Big Ten opponents if it wants to make an eventual push for the NCAA Tournament. This is a game that Maryland desperately needs, similar to its last game.
“The talk is let’s continue with the momentum that we’ve created,” Manning said. “That’s the mindset. You want to continue to go out and get better each time that you step out on the court. Obviously we know that each game that we play is one less that we get and we have to do a much better job with our record to get to where we want to go at the end of the year. So that’s no secret and we all understand that.”