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Maryland men’s basketball vs. Minnesota preview

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The Terps will look to pick up a win in their final home game of the season.

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
UMTerps

Maryland men’s basketball is set to play its final home game of the season Wednesday at 9 p.m. against Minnesota.

The Terps have picked up three wins in their last four matchups and seem to have strung together some momentum late in the regular season.

Maryland is looking to finish the season at or above .500 with it just one game shy of that and two matchups remaining on the regular season slate.

“I think we are a team made for March,” senior guard Eric Ayala said. “The kind of things we’ve been able to do this year, the potential that we’ve got. You know, coming into the year we was expected to do a lot of great things and I think we started to scratch the surface a little bit of what we can do here.”

The game will air on Big Ten Network Wednesday night.

Minnesota (13-14, 4-14 Big Ten)

2020-21 record: (14-15, 6-14)

Head coach Ben Johnson is in his first year at the helm of the program. Johnson served as an assistant coach at Minnesota from 2013-18 and also played for the Golden Gophers before graduating in 2005. Between his two stints on the coaching staff at Minnesota, Johnson most recently spent three seasons at Xavier as an assistant coach.

This season, Minnesota swept all of its nonconference opponents but has struggled a bit finding wins against Big Ten teams. The Gophers have picked up victories against Michigan, Rutgers, Penn State and Northwestern. Minnesota most recently experienced back-to-back losses against Wisconsin and Indiana. Against the Badgers, Minnesota came close to pulling off the upset dropping the game, 68-67.

Players to know

Jamison Battle, sophomore forward, 6-foot-7, No. 10 — The Robbinsdale, Minnesota, native came over to Minnesota after two seasons with George Washington. There, he started in 45 out of the 47 games in which he saw the court. While with George Washington, Battle averaged 13.5 points per game and 5.2 rebounds in his two seasons. Now, Battle leads the Badgers in scoring with an average of 16.5 points per game. He also leads the charge on the boards grabbing 6.4 per game. Battle has started in all 26 games he’s appeared in this season.

Payton Willis, senior guard, 6-foot-4, No. 00 — Willis is another player the Gophers picked up from the transfer portal and made multiple moves in his collegiate career. He started his career with two seasons at Vanderbilt before one at Minnesota during the 2019-20 season. He then transferred to the College of Charleston for last season and is back at Minnesota for his final year of eligibility. Now, Willis is second on the team in scoring and third in rebounds averaging 16 points per game and 4.7 rebounds. He’s been shooting 47.9% from the field and has the most 3-pointers on the team with 67 successful attempts. The guard also leads the team in both assists and steals with 115 and 41, respectively.

Eric Curry, redshirt senior forward, 6-foot-9, No. 1 — Curry has had a long road with injuries missing the entirety of the 2017-18 season as well as the 2019-20 season due to knee injuries. Last year, Curry started in eight games while averaging 3.7 points per game and 3.1 rebounds. The Memphis, Tennessee, native has made a big jump this season starting in 23 out of 24 games he’s played in. He had a big performance against Penn State in which he put up 22 points shooting 10-for-19 from the field including 1-for-1 from deep. Although he doesn’t have a high-scoring or high-rebounding game every night, he averages the second most rebounds per game with 5.8. He also has the most offensive rebounds and blocks on the team with 26 and 16, respectively.

Strength

Protecting the ball. Minnesota ranks fourth in the conference with a turnover margin of .93. The Gophers are behind just Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin in this category. Minnesota also holds the No. 4 sport in the assist/turnover ratio behind Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue with a 1.34 ratio. The Gophers are averaging 12.8 assists and 9.6 turnovers per game.

“We have to do a really good job of taking care of the basketball because they take care of the basketball,” interim head coach Danny Manning said. “And we have to throw the ball inside.”

Weakness

Putting up a lot of points. The Gophers have the second to last offense in the Big Ten averaging just 67.6 points per game. The only team in the conference behind Minnesota is Penn State which averages 65.3 points per game. Minnesota has found ways to win 13 games and is just one below .500 but has scored 60 or fewer points in five matchups this season. The Terps aren’t too far ahead averaging 70.6 points per game but are coming off a 15-point win against the ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

Three things to watch

1. How will Maryland’s backcourt perform? Last game, guards Fatts Russell and Ayala scored 50 of Maryland’s 75 points. Ayala is coming off what he classified as a hand injury and scored 23 points against the Buckeyes marking the first time since the end of January he cracked 20 points. The senior guard is averaging 14.4 points per game while Russell leads the team with 14.9 points. Russell has stood out in this last stretch of the season scoring 20 or more points in five of the last six games. The one he did not was against Penn State in which he put up 18 points. Russell had a season-high 27 points against Ohio State including six 3-pointers. If Russell and Ayala both have nights as they did against the Buckeyes the Terps are near unbeatable.

“Just happy that everyone is just enjoying themselves,” Russell said about the energy after the Ohio State game. “The joy that we had in the locker room, I don’t think we had that in a long time.”

2. Can the bench make an impact? Against Ohio State, Maryland’s bench scored just two points in the form of a basket from graduate guard Xavier Green however, they did not need to make a splash offensively thanks to the performances that Russell and Ayala had. In the game before against Indiana, the bench combined for 11 points, eight of those came from freshman forward Julian Reese. Depending on how Maryland starts off the game, the Terps’ bench may have the opportunity to get more minutes and in turn do more on the court. Sophomore guard Ian Martinez has also shown flashes of confidence during this final stretch of the season and had back-to-back games in which he tallied four steals. Against a Minnesota team that sits below Maryland in the standings may give the bench more opportunities on Wednesday.

3. Will the Terps send their seniors out on a high note? The Minnesota game marks the last men’s basketball matchup at Xfinity Center for the 2021-22 season. The team will be honoring its seniors and graduate students: Russell, Ayala, Green and graduate forward Simon Wright. Maryland has won three of its last five matchups and one of those losses came in the form of a one-point loss to the No. 3 team in the country at the time, Purdue. The Terps have the chance to build on the momentum they’ve sparked and pick up a second straight win against the Gophers in their final home game of the season.