The regular-season finale is upon us. No. 21 Maryland men’s basketball is back on the road to finish the regular season at Penn State before the Big Ten Tournament tips off in Chicago next week. Tipoff is set for noon on Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.
Sunday’s game has massive implications for both teams. Maryland is vying for a top-four seed in the Big Ten Tournament, while Penn State is hoping to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive with a resume-boosting win against Maryland.
The Terps still have much to prove away from College Park this season with their only conference road win coming at last-place Minnesota.
What happened last time
When these teams met just a few weeks ago on Feb. 11, it was in College Park, where Maryland went undefeated in conference play. Penn State, the second best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten, was going to need an A-plus effort to knock off the Terps in their home building.
After a slow offensive start for both sides, Maryland entered halftime with a 31-28 lead. Penn State took a brief lead in the second half before Maryland’s patented defense locked in and shut down the Nittany Lions. Penn State committed 13 turnovers and was held scoreless for a five-minute span in the second half.
That allowed Maryland to go on a run and take a 12-point lead late in the second half. Penn State fought back but it wasn't enough, eventually falling to Maryland, 74-68.
Hakim Hart had his best game of the season against Penn State, scoring a season-high 23 points. He also assumed point guard responsibility for stretches in the game and dished out four assists.
Penn State shot 46% from three, which is only a bit above its season average of 39%. Jalen Pickett, who is a lock for a First Team All-Big Ten selection, netted 15 points, but shot just one free throw.
What’s happened since
Maryland has been a lock for the NCAA Tournament since that game and in the five games since, the Terps’ season has played out similar to how it did all year. Maryland followed the Penn State win with its best win of the season, upsetting then-No. 3 Purdue in College Park and producing an epic court storm at the XFINITY Center.
After that, Maryland beat Minnesota and Northwestern at home and lost to Nebraska and Ohio State on the road. Like it has been all season, Maryland was unbeatable at home and abysmal on the road.
Penn State, on the other hand, has been on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament just about the entire season. Following its loss to Maryland, Penn State rallied for three straight wins over Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State, putting it in a great position to earn an at-large bid come Selection Sunday.
However, Penn State blew a double-digit lead at home against Rutgers, eventually falling to the Scarlet Knights, 59-56. A win for Penn State over Rutgers would have been crucial for its tournament chances and its seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. Instead, it created a more difficult path for itself with two games remaining. In its penultimate game of the season, Penn State won a thriller on the road, knocking off Northwestern, 68-65, thanks to a buzzer-beating three in overtime.
Sunday’s season finale is, in many ways, a must-win for Penn State. A win over Maryland would certainly be a resume booster as it prays to hear its name in the field of 68 in one week.
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland finally get off to a good start on the road? Maryland’s conference road games have followed a familiar script this season. It gets off to slow offensive starts that leads to it playing from behind in front of a daunting opposing crowd. While Maryland usually plays better as the game goes on, its poor starts have led it to a 1-8 record in Big Ten road games. If Maryland is going to win on Sunday, it can’t get behind early.
2. Can Maryland contain Jalen Pickett? Pickett is a lock for an All-Big Ten first team selection. He’s been a consistent scoring weapon for Penn State all season and is the main reason why it is on the bubble. Maryland did a pretty good job containing Pickett the first time they played — Pickett only scored 15 points, below his average of 18.1 per game. Replicating that defensive performance against Pickett will be crucial to victory.
3. Big Ten seeding implications. As of Saturday morning, there are 128 different scenarios that could unravel in the next two days to determine the final standings in the Big Ten. The standings, particularly among seeds two through nine, are extremely close. Maryland could be as high as a two seed and as low as a nine seed. Of course, it depends on how the rest of Sunday’s games play out, including Maryland’s. If Maryland wins, it will be a top-four seed and receive a double-bye. If the Terps lose, it’s fair to assume they will be playing on Thursday in Chicago in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.