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Maryland basketball vs. Nebraska preview (round 2)

The Terps face a slumping Huskers squad on the road.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball is mired in somewhat of a slump, having lost three of its last four games. This recent stretch is not a total surprise, as two of those games have been against ranked teams on the road, but it’s taken the Terps from 7-1 to 8-4 in the Big Ten; after knocking on the door of first, they’re now in fifth.

The team is still in decent shape for now, though. Maryland is still ranked 24th in the country and holds a similar standing in most advanced rankings systems. Our Justin Fitzgerald has the Terps as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament right now, with most bracketologists holding similar views.

Maryland still needs a strong finish to the season, though, and Wednesday’s matchup with Nebraska is an important start. The Cornuskers are in free fall, but beating them in their building won’t be easy. And a loss puts Maryland in a tough spot heading into three straight games against top-20 opponents.

Wednesday’s game tips off at 7 p.m. ET on BTN.

What happened last time

When the teams met Jan. 2, it was the Huskers who came in with a No. 24 ranking and the Terps in need of a home win. After a back-and-forth game, Maryland pulled out the victory in the final seconds.

Bruno Fernando was dominant, pouring in 18 points and pulling down 17 rebounds (including seven offensive boards). Anthony Cowan Jr. used a strong second half to finish with a team-high 19 points. But down the stretch, it was all Jalen Smith. The freshman forward scored Maryland’s final seven points, all on go-ahead baskets, including the winning floater with a second to go.

James Palmer Jr. led all scorers with 26 points, still his highest output of the conference season. He shot 7-of-19 from the floor and made 3 of 10 threes, starting the game hot before cooling off. Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby added 12 and 11 for Nebraska, respectively.

What’s happened since

The Terps won five more games after that one, citing the Nebraska victory as one that gave them confidence. This streak put them at 7-1 in league play and set up a matchup with Michigan State for solo first place. As mentioned above, the past four games haven’t gone nearly as well, and Maryland is still in the middle of a brutal stretch. But a win over the Huskers, even under different circumstances, could provide a jolt once again.

“I’ve got confidence in my guys,” head coach Mark Turgeon said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve won more than we’ve lost and we’re in good shape. We’ve just got to keep growing, and I think we’ve continued to grow.”

For Nebraska, though, things have gone directly south. The Huskers have lost five straight games, with their last win coming Jan. 14 at Indiana. They’re now 3-8 in the Big Ten and need a strong finish to get back into NCAA Tournament consideration. That won’t be easy, as Isaac Copeland Jr. is out for the year with a torn ACL. (KenPom still has Nebraska 27th, while other systems have the Huskers slightly lower.)

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland dominate inside again? The Terps won the opening matchup in the paint and on the boards. They grabbed 38 rebounds to Nebraska’s 28 and led 38-26 in points in the paint. With Copeland out, things should open up a little bit more for Fernando and Smith. Roby is still in the way, but he can’t take on both bigs by himself. Smith should have a size advantage on whoever he’s matched up with, and Maryland needs him to take advantage of that.

2. Does the transition game harm the Terps again? This category has been costly in each of the three recent losses, as other teams have turned Maryland giveaways into easy points while the Terps struggled to force turnovers themselves. Nebraska is as well-suited as anyone to exploit this. The Huskers lead the conference in turnover margin and are 31st nationally in steal percentage, and Palmer and Watson have the quickness to convert transition opportunities.

“Especially in that building, they go out and get after you,” Turgeon said. “They’ve got great quickness. They reach and they do a good job with it, so we have to be strong with the ball.”

3. Can Eric Ayala keep it going? After a dismal outing against Illinois (no points, four turnovers) and a scoreless first half against Northwestern, Ayala has scored 26 points in his last three halves, including 13 in the first period against Wisconsin. As the primary ball handler, his offensive resurgence has also opened things up for his teammates.

“I think it’s great for him because it’s given him confidence,” sophomore guard Darryl Morsell said. “Confidence is everything, especially going into the end of the regular season and heading into the Big Ten tournament ... and his confidence can rub off on other individuals, so that’s been great.”


KenPom: Nebraska 71, Maryland 68

Me: Maryland 73, Nebraska 67