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Maryland basketball vs. Penn State preview: Terps resume Big Ten play vs. Nittany Lions

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The Terps are back in conference play to start the new year.

NCAA Basketball: Rider at Penn State
Penn State head coach Pat Chambers
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a new year. It’s January. It’s time for conference basketball to start—or, in this case, restart.

Maryland enters 2018 with a 1-1 Big Ten record under its belt, thanks to a loss to Purdue and a wild victory over Illinois at the start of December. However, the 11-3 Terps no longer have Justin Jackson or Ivan Bender after losing both to season-ending injuries last week. Jackson’s torn labrum and Bender’s torn meniscus leave Maryland with supersized question marks in the frontcourt, and with this game and a visit to No. 1 Michigan State looming in the next three days, there isn’t much time to find answers.

The Nittany Lions upset Maryland in State College last season; while the venue has shifted, it’d be hard to call this an upset. Penn State is 10-4 and ranked 41st in KenPom; the Terps are 30th, but losing two forwards will be tough to overcome.

Tuesday’s contest tips of at 7 p.m. ET on BTN.

Penn State Nittany Lions (10-4, 1-1 Big Ten)

2016-17 record: 15-18, 6-12

Head coach Pat Chambers is in his seventh year with the Nittany Lions. While he’s yet to win more than 18 games in a season, this team looks poised to end that drought. Chambers was previously the head coach at Boston University before coming to State College in 2011.

Players to know

Tony Carr, sophomore, guard, 6’5/204, No. 10. Penn State’s three leading scorers are sophomores, and Carr leads the way with 18.9 points per game. He’s been filling up stat sheets all year, averaging 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists, but perhaps the most eye-popping stat is his .528 three-point percentage on 4.1 attempts per game. Maryland has been inconsistent slowing down opponents’ best scorers this season, and the Terps can’t afford to let Carr run wild.

Mike Watkins, sophomore, forward, 6’9/254, No. 24. While he might not have the height of Maryland’s biggest post presences, Watkins has shown he can hang with taller players. He’s averaging 12.4 points and a team-high 8.4 rebounds, as well as a conference-best 3.5 blocks per game and .670 shooting percentage.

Lamar Stevens, sophomore, forward, 6’8/226, No. 11. Another second-year weapon, Stevens puts up 14.1 points and 7.1 boards a night. He’ll man the power forward spot, so it’ll be interesting to see who Mark Turgeon sends out to defend him for most of the game.

Strength

Defense. The Nittany Lions are 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive turnover rate. Maryland’s giveaway problems have been well-documented, so this is an area where Penn State will look to find some separation.

Weakness

Free-throw shooting. Penn State’s 69.8 percent clip at the charity stripe ranks 205th in the nation. Carr shoots his foul shots at 85.7 percent, but nobody else in the starting lineup is above 75 percent (Stevens is exactly at that number). While there aren’t any liabilities on the roster, this area will be far from automatic.

Three things to watch

1. What does Maryland do with the power forward spot? Do the Terps go big and play Bruno Fernando alongside fellow center Michal Cekovsky? Do they go small and play Jared Nickens at the four? Does Joshua Tomaic see more time out of necessity? What about Sean Obi? Maryland has some options, but the margin for error is smaller now than it’s been all season.

2. Which bench can contribute more? Penn State’s five starters—those mentioned above plus guards Shep Garner and Josh Reaves—all average over 11 points per game, but the Nittany Lions appear to go nine-deep at most. Maryland has 10 scholarship players healthy, but it’s unclear how many Turgeon will trust in a close game.

3. Can Maryland get off to a better start? The Terps played 20 atrocious minutes of offense in the first half against UMBC, and it’s safe to say another such performance early on might be too much to overcome. Slow starts were a common problem in the non-conference slate, but Maryland hopes it left the worst of those issues in 2017.

Predictions

KenPom: Maryland wins, 73-68

Me: Maryland wins, 72-69