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No. 17 Maryland men's basketball vs Northwestern preview

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The Terps will try to pick up an elusive road victory against a Big Ten foe.

Ohio State v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Maryland men's basketball — still ranked No. 17 in the AP Top 25 — is headed back to the Midwest as it takes on the Northwestern Wildcats Tuesday night in Evanston, Illinois.

The Terps are in the midst of a five-game stretch that features four matchups away from Xfinity Center. As everyone is likely aware by now, Mark Turgeon’s squad is still without a true road win this season. Maryland suffered a 67-49 defeat at Iowa on Jan. 10 and then lost 56-54 in the final seconds at Wisconsin on Jan. 14. Most recently though, the Terps earned a 57-50 victory against Purdue at home.

This team couldn’t ask for a better chance to notch its first road win than at Northwestern. The Wildcats are dead last in the Big Ten with just one conference victory and are the lowest-ranked KenPom opponent (No. 106) the Terps have faced since Dec. 29 against Bryant.

“We already know that every team and every game in the Big Ten is gonna be a tough game no matter what — if it’s home or away,” Jalen Smith said. “We’ve just got to approach it like any other game in making sure that we execute and treat them [with respect] as the same way we would want somebody to treat us.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET and the game will air on Fox Sports 1.

Northwestern Wildcats (6-11, 1-6 Big Ten)

2018-19 record: 13-19 (4-16)

Head coach Chris Collins is in his seventh season at the helm for Northwestern after serving on Duke’s coaching staff from 2000-13. He's led the program to historic milestones already during his tenure, though the biggest came at the expense of the Terps. In 2017, he led the Wildcats to defeat No. 25 Maryland in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in Washington, DC, en route to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

Players to know

Miller Kopp, sophomore forward, 6’7, 210 lbs, No. 10. In a season for the Wildcats that started with a less-than-ideal amount of scholarship players and has since been mired by injuries, Kopp has by far played the most minutes of anyone on Collins’ squad. The sophomore leads the team with an average 13.1 points per game and has scored in double-figures in seven consecutive contests. He’s also shooting a stellar 40 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks third in the Big Ten.

Pat Spencer, graduate guard, 6’3, 205 lbs, No. 12. Spencer might look familiar to Maryland fans, but it isn’t for his play on the basketball court. Before transferring to Northwestern for a graduate year, Spencer was a star lacrosse player for Loyola Maryland, becoming the first player in program history to win the Tewaaraton Award last season — beating out Terp Jared Bernhardt. The Davidsonville, Maryland, native ended his career with the Greyhounds as the D-1 all-time leader in assists (231) and second in points (380).

Spencer’s success on the turf has transitioned well to the hardwood to say the least. Currently as the Wildcats’ top active guard, he averages 10.6 points, 4.0 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game. He also has the second-best field goal percentage for Northwestern at 43.9 percent.

[He’s] really doing a great job for them, tough kid,” Turgeon said Monday. “Obviously a heck of a lacrosse player and he’s turned into a really good Big Ten point guard too.

“I think the best athletes in the world — one is they have some God-given ability, first of all — but they have an innate ability to compete at a high level. And they’re really mentally tough guys and physically tough guys.”

Robbie Beran, freshman forward, 6’9, 205 lbs, No. 31. After freshman guard Boo Buie was declared out indefinitely with a high-ankle sprain at the beginning of January, Beran moved into the starting lineup for Collins. The Richmond, Virginia, native has started the last five games for Northwestern, averaging 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds a night during that span. Beran is coming off the best game of his career against Illinois, in which he notched 17 points (6-of-14 from the floor, 3-of-6 from deep) and five rebounds.

Strength

Free throws. Northwestern ranks in the bottom half — and in many cases 13th or 14th — in pretty much every statistical category on the Big Ten leaderboard, except for its percentage at the charity stripe. The Wildcats have made 75.2 percent of their free throw attempts this season, which is good for second in the Big Ten and 54th in the country.

Weakness

Rebounding. Despite being the fourth-tallest team in college basketball, the Wildcats have struggled quite a bit on the boards this season. Northwestern averages just 34.6 rebounds per game with a -1.4 rebounding margin. The team’s average of 8.4 offensive rebounds a night ranks last in the Big Ten, while its 26.2 defensive rebounds per game are 12th in the conference.

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland overcome a major height disadvantage? With two of its top guards — Anthony Gaines and Buie — out with injuries, Northwestern has opted to go with a forward-heavy starting lineup as of late. As strange as it may be, the Wildcats have started four forwards and one guard over their past five games. That lineup includes three players over 6’9 — 6’9 Beran, 6’10 Pete Nance and 6’10 Ryan Young — as well as 6’7 Kopp and 6’3 Spencer.

Turgeon has led the opening tip with the combination of 6’0 Anthony Cowan Jr, 6’5 Eric Ayala, 6’5 Darryl Morsell, 6’7 Donta Scott and 6’10 Jalen Smith over the Terps’ last two games, which means a big height disadvantage is in store.

“We give up size some nights, some nights we don’t. It all comes down to toughness and physicality,” Turgeon said. “We’re going to play the way we play and hopefully our defense travels again for us and plays well.”

2. How do the Terps handle a new road environment? Maryland and Northwestern only met once last season for a matchup in College Park, so the Terps still haven't played in the completely redone Welsh Ryan Arena. Completed in fall 2018, the Wildcats’ new facility is the smallest in the Big Ten and was designed to have a similar feel to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in that the crowd is right on top of the court in a closed-in space.

While Northwestern isn’t exactly a tough opponent, Maryland has struggled away from Xfinity Center, going 0-4 in true road games so far this season, and getting adjusted to unfamiliar territory could be a factor at the start of this one. And similarly to the environment, there is only one player starting for Collins that the Terps have faced before in Kopp — three of the other four are freshmen or transfers, while the sophomore Nance sat out last year’s matchup with an injury.

3. Will Maryland put two complete halves together? The Terps had their best start of the season against Purdue, going on an 9-0 run out of the gates to take a 20-4 lead early. Maryland made seven of its first 11 shots from beyond the arc and completely shut down the Boilermakers on the defensive end.

But the team was sluggish coming out of halftime and only scored 21 points in the final period of play as it went 7-of-25 from the floor and 0-of-9 on three-point attempts. The opposite scenario has typically held true for the Terps this season, with the team consistently having slow starts and a much more solid second half.

Maryland showed its most complete game of basketball against Marquette in the Orlando Invitational on Dec. 1 and needs to get back to playing at that level if it wants a legit shot at the Big Ten title.

“We realize that we have to control the tempo a little more in the games, and that means just slowing it down a little bit,” Cowan said. “Coach [Turgeon] put in some really good sets to really get us into a good offensive flow. We’ve been doing that lately and it’s been pretty good for us.”

Predictions

Vegas: Maryland -6.5, O/U 129.5 (as of Monday afternoon)

ESPN BPI: Maryland 79.8% chance to win

KenPom: Maryland 69, Northwestern 62 (Maryland 74% chance to win)

Me: Maryland 73, Northwestern 64