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No. 4 Maryland men’s basketball vs Penn State preview

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The Terps are gearing up for their first true road game of the season.

Maryland basketball Aaron Wiggins vs. Penn State Lila Bromberg / Testudo Times

Maryland men’s basketball remains perfect on the season, as it’s coming off a 2-0 week with wins over Notre Dame and Illinois.

However, the Terps didn’t do enough to maintain their spot in the latest AP Top 25 Poll — they dropped one spot to No. 4 after being jumped by Ohio State, which has looked the part of the best team in the Big Ten thus far.

Of course, Maryland barely survived against Illinois, which likely contributed to the drop in the rankings.

“I was just disappointed by how unready we were,” head coach Mark Turgeon said Monday. “We talked about just trying to get better. There’s a lot of things that we’re not very good at right now.”

After not having a true road game to this point of the season — the Orlando Invitational was a neutral site — that will change for the Terps on Tuesday. They’re headed to Happy Valley to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions, who were just thrashed by the Buckeyes on Saturday.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET, and the game can be watched on ESPN2.

Penn State Nittany Lions (7-2, 0-1 Big Ten)

2018-19 record: 14-18 (7-13 Big Ten)

Head coach Patrick Chambers is in his ninth season at the helm of the Nittany Lions, becoming the longest-tenured coach since Bruce Parkhill, who led the team from 1983-1995. Despite posting just two winning seasons in his eight previous and failing to make a single NCAA Tournament, Chambers was extended last year through 2021-22.

Players to know

Lamar Stevens, senior forward, 6’8, 225 lbs, No. 11. Like Cowan for the Terps, Stevens has started every single game for Penn State since his arrival on campus before the 2016-17 season. He’s in line for his 114th consecutive start on Tuesday, and he’s putting together quite the final campaign thus far. While his scoring is down from a year ago, Stevens has improved on his efficiency. In nine games, he’s averaging 16.8 points on 45.8 percent shooting with 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.7 steals.

“He’s powerful from the perimeter,” Darryl Morsell said. “He drives powerfully, he posts up powerfully. We’re just going to try and make it difficult for him, give him a lot of different looks.”

Myreon Jones, sophomore guard, 6’3, 175 lbs, No. 0. Jones didn’t have much of an impact as a freshman, as he averaged just 10.8 minutes and 4.0 points per game off the bench. But now as a starter, Jones has been terrific. He’s averaging 13.1 points — second on the team behind Stevens — on 44.4 percent shooting and 40.8 from beyond the arc. He’s also the team’s leading facilitator, averaging 3.0 assists per contest.

Mike Watkins, senior forward, 6’9, 257 lbs, No. 24. Watkins has been a mainstay in the rotation since his arrival on campus in 2016, as he’s started 75 of his career 98 games. That includes a 9-of-9 stretch to start his final campaign, and he’s putting together another strong season for the Nittany Lions down low thus far. He’s currently averaging 10.7 points on 58 percent shooting, while adding 9.1 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 1.3 steals per game.

Strength

Defense. Like Maryland over the last couple games, the key to Penn State’s early success has been its defensive prowess — it currently ranks 27th in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Opponents are making just 42.9 percent of their two-pointers (36th), and the Nittany Lions possess elite block (15.3 percent, 17th in the country) and steal (13.1, 13th) rates.

Weakness

Free-throw shooting. It’s still early, so the free-throw numbers for Penn State could correct with more games played. But as it stands right now, the Nittany Lions are leaving a ton of points at the charity stripe. They are currently shooting just 67.2 percent from the line, 10th in the Big Ten and 240th in the nation.

While poor free-throw numbers aren’t necessarily a killer, Penn State gets to the line at a high rate — its 21.3 attempts per game ranks in the top-75 in the country. The Nittany Lions currently miss seven free throws per outing, which could come back to bite them in a close game.

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland get things going early? If this sounds repetitive to you, it is for us as well. In their first 10 games of the season, the Terps have gotten out to an early lead just once — in the Orlando Invitational championship against Marquette. And even then, it took them a few minutes to really get going.

On Saturday against Illinois, Maryland saw first-hand the perils of sleepwalking through a first half. If it were not for a remarkable run in the final five minutes of the game, the team would have its first loss of the season.

There’s no doubt the talent the team has going for it right now. But if the Terps start sluggishly in their first true road game of the season, it won’t be easy to mount a comeback against the Nittany Lions.

“For some reason we always start out slow at Penn State,” Cowan said. “At other Big Ten schools, the gym is probably always full there. At Penn State, it’s not as much, so you gotta find your own energy, which can definitely be difficult.”

Of course, Maryland did exactly what Cowan detailed last year at the Bryce Jordan Center. The then-No. 17 Terps trailed Penn State, 42-20, at halftime and ultimately lost, 78-61.

2. Who controls the rebounding battle? For only the second time this season, Maryland was outrebounded in its game against Illinois on Saturday. The Terps, who entered the 2019-20 season sporting a new look as a physical team, were out-muscled and out-hustled by the Fighting Illini. Penn State is another hard-nosed team that knows how to grab tough rebounds and make its mark on the interior. The matchup of Jalen Smith (10.1 boards per game) versus Watkins (9.7) will be one to watch down low.

“You just got to want it more, that’s what [rebounding] comes down to,” Morsell said. “That was our goal in practice today, was to be tough. I think it’s something we focused on, and hopefully that changes.”

3. Will the Terps break out of their three-point shooting slump? Maryland is currently shooting just 30.4 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 255th in the nation. However, that lack of success hasn’t stopped the team from taking a ton of triples, as it ranks in the top-third of the country in three-point attempt percentage.

As long as the Terps keep shooting them, they’re going to have to flip the script and starting hitting shots from outside. And that all starts with Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, who are combining to make just 3.1 of their 10.9 attempts per game (28.4 percent).

Predictions

Vegas: Penn State -1.5, O/U 141.5 (as of Tuesday night)

ESPN BPI: Maryland 41.9% chance to win

KenPom: Maryland 74, Penn State 73 (Maryland 51% chance to win)

Me: Maryland 69, Penn State 65