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Maryland men’s basketball at Nebraska preview

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The Terps will battle the last-place team in the Big Ten.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Having lost each of its last five games, Maryland men’s basketball will have the chance to capture its first win since late January when it faces the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Friday night.

The Terps are just 2-5 on the road and 11-14 overall, but luckily for them, Nebraska is the only program beneath them in the conference standings. The Cornhuskers are firmly in the basement of the Big Ten, giving Maryland and interim head coach Danny Manning a prime opportunity to officially snap its losing streak that has stretched to a season-high of five in a row.

Friday’s 9 p.m. game will be on Big Ten Network. Let’s take a look at Maryland’s upcoming matchup with Nebraska.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-18, 1-13 Big Ten)

2020-21: 7-20 (3-16 Big Ten)

Head coach Fred Hoiberg was tasked with turning around Nebraska’s program when he was introduced as the head coach back in 2019. The program had two straight seasons of only seven wins prior to the 2021-22 season, therefore this campaign is shaping up to be one of the Cornhuskers’ best under Hoiberg’s guidance. The most notable thing Hoiberg has brought to the program has been his ability to recruit. Nebraska’s 2021 recruiting class was ranked in the top-15 nationally by ESPN. It was highlighted by Hoiberg getting five-star Bryce McGowens to sign on with the program. Nebraska may be in the midst of another dreadful season, however, things are point somewhat in the right direction under Hoiberg.

Players to know

Bryce McGowens, freshman guard, 6-foot-7, No. 5 — The best player on the Cornhuskers is one of their youngest guards. Bryce McGowens, the first five-star recruit in Nebraska history, was one of the top guards coming out of the 2021 class and he’s proved that in his first season. McGowens has started in all 25 games this season. He’s averaging a team-high 16.5 points per game on 40% shooting, along with a solid 83% clip from the free-throw line. McGowen’s height allows him to grab upwards of five rebounds per game, too. There are not too many players to fear on the Cornhuskers’ roster, but McGowens will likely be a handful for Maryland despite his poor shooting outings as of late.

Alonzo Verge Jr., senior guard, 6-foot-3, No. 1 — Alonzo Verge Jr. transferred to Nebraska prior to the 2021-22 season and came from Arizona State, where he played for two seasons. Verge Jr. averages the second-most minutes per game and is second on the roster in points per game with 13.6. He’s the only other Cornhusker to average double figures in scoring. He's by far and away this team’s best passer; Verge Jr.’s 125 total assists in 25 games easily leads the program. Verge Jr. will likely maintain his role as a facilitator when the Terps come town.

Derrick Walker, junior forward, 6-foot-9, No. 13 — As Nebraska’s most reliable big man, Derrick Walker has had a steady role under Hoiberg in 2021-22. Walker averages just shy under 10 points per game, but his efficiency is unmatched compared to the other Cornhuskers. In 25 starts, he’s shot the ball 150 times and connected on 104 of those attempts, which equates to nearly 70% shooting from the field. His 5.7 rebounds per game and 25 total blocks both lead the team this season. Walker is the figure to look for in the paint when Maryland takes on Nebraska.

Strength

Turnover margin. Despite Nebraska being one of the lower-level Big Ten teams this season, it surprisingly has a positive turnover margin. The Cornhuskers force opponents into over 14 turnovers per game, while their clip lies at exactly 13 per contest. They also score more points off turnovers than their opponent per game, notching 16 points off turnovers per 40 minutes. Maryland will have to zero in on stopping Nebraska from getting out in transition.

Weakness

Rebounding. It was tough to choose between one weakness, but Nebraska’s rebounding margin (-8.4) was slightly more notable than its struggles shooting the three (30.7% per game as a team). Nebraska gets consistently out-rebounded and it will be a weakness for the Terps to exploit. The Cornhuskers are the second-worst rebounding team in the Big Ten, grabbing an average of 33.6 rebounds per game, just 2.2 more than Minnesota.

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland take down the Big Ten’s easiest target? By no means is this a shot at the talent that Nebraska has on its roster, it is actually a commentary on how far the program is relative to the rest of the conference. Nebraska has a few key pieces that should help its future out, but as for the now, it finds itself cemented into last-place unless Maryland, Minnesota or Penn State has a massive collapse. With just seven wins in 25 games, the Cornhuskers are the Terps’ most winnable Big Ten game this season. Maryland’s difficult schedule has not been kind to it as of late, but this will be a solid chance to secure conference win No. 4.

2. Can Fatts Russell build off his season-best performance from last game? Fatts Russell had himself quite the standout performance in Maryland’s one-point loss to No. 3 Purdue. The experienced guard stepped up on both ends of the floor with senior guard Eric Ayala absent due to a wrist injury.

“Eric [Ayala] has been participating in practice, not all the practices,” Manning said about Ayala’s availability ahead of the Nebraska game. “Will be a game-time decision, we’ll see how he feels after today and tomorrow after shoot-around hopefully it doesn't get banged around and we can get him back out there to give us some minutes.”

Russell’s explosiveness on the offensive end and the defensive effort on the other kept Maryland afloat as he finished with a game-high 24 points and three steals in 37 minutes. His nine rebounds were also a season-high and his six assists marked the second straight game that he hit that mark. If Ayala is limited or ruled out for Friday’s matchup, Russell will likely need to be one of Maryland’s main sources of energy on both ends of the floor once again.

“We played really hard and we executed the game plan defensively very well, we boxed out, we rebounded pretty well,” Russell said about the Purdue game. “We gotta just keep that momentum going on the defensive end going in Nebraska.”

3. Which Maryland will show itself on the court? The Maryland faithful saw polar opposite performances from their team when looking at the last two games. The Terps’ game against Iowa, the matchup prior to the nail-biter with Purdue, was a high-flying affair in which Maryland couldn't manufacture any defensive stops, resulting in a 23-point loss. Then in the bout with the Boilermakers, the Terps held one of the top-scoring offenses in the nation to just 62 points on their home court. Will it be a free-for-all on offense once again for Maryland’s opponent? Or will the Terps shut down the Cornhuskers to give themselves a fighting chance to break out of their slump?

“We can’t let our energy go down at any time during the game or even practices,” guard Ian Martinez said. “And even from teams with records like Nebraska, I mean, this conference is still really competitive and every team can play so we gotta keep preparing the same way we did Purdue and go in with the same energy as well.”