Following an impressive win in East Lansing, Michigan, No. 7 Maryland men’s basketball returns home to face Northwestern for the second time this season.
The Terps, who beat Michigan State 67-60 Saturday, are currently in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten and are tied with No. 9 Penn State for the longest active winning streak in the conference (8 games).
“Just the level of focus is — high intensity,” Anthony Cowan Jr. said Monday. “We understand [there’s] little margin for error. So we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to keep the momentum going.”
Northwestern, on the other hand, has seen brighter days as it currently sits in last place in the Big Ten standings and has lost nine-straight games — second-worst to only Nebraska (10).
Most recently, the Wildcats lost to the Nittany Lions, 61-77, Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania.
Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET, and the game can be watched on the Big Ten Network.
Here is the preview from the first time the two teams met.
What happened last time
The first matchup between Northwestern and Maryland on Jan. 21 served as the turning point for Mark Turgeon’s team.
In the beginning, the Terps played flat and didn’t get much offensive production. Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr. — two of the team’s least likely high scorers — kept Maryland in the game early with their trio of three-pointers.
The Terps managed to keep it close until they were held without a field goal for nearly eight minutes going into halftime, allowing Northwestern’s lead to grow to 14 entering the half. The team’s starters only shot 1-of-15 from the field through the first 20 minutes.
But at halftime, Turgeon gave a speech that fired up his team, saying he wanted them to play “street ball.” The speech immediately fired up his team and indicated to Turgeon that Maryland had a very good opportunity to overcome the first-half deficit.
On the first play out of halftime, Aaron Wiggins hit a three-pointer that set the ball rolling for Maryland.
Nearly two minutes later, Jalen Smith caught a pass from Darryl Morsell for his first points of the second half. After stopping Northwestern on the following possession and forcing a turnover, Cowan took the ball in transition the other way, only to miss a layup that Smith cleaned up with an and-one dunk.
With just over nine minutes remaining in the game and the Wildcats leading 55-53, Smith blocked a layup from Pat Spencer, leading to a three-pointer from Cowan to give his team the first lead of the game and cap off a 13-2 run.
The Terps overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to beat Northwestern 77-66 on the back of Smith, who scored 25 points — 21 of which came in the second half — and grabbed 11 boards.
What’s happened since
Since the team won its first road game against the Wildcats, Maryland — especially Smith — has been playing on a completely different level.
Five days after playing Northwestern, the Terps traveled to Bloomington to face Indiana at Assembly Hall — debatably the toughest place to play in college basketball. Once again, Smith put the team on his back and notched a career-high 29 points to go along with 11 rebounds for his second straight double-double to give Maryland its first win at in Bloomington, Indiana since joining the Big Ten.
Since his game against Northwestern, the Baltimore big man has been playing like an All-American, averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds per contest, while also shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.
The Terps then returned home to face then-No. 18 Iowa and Rutgers — two respectable teams in a loaded Big Ten conference — and came out of both games with victories.
But Maryland’s next game was the marquee matchup between two conference powerhouses when the team traveled to Champaign in a battle with then-No. 20 Illinois.
Similar to their game against Northwestern, the Terps faced a 14-point deficit at one point in the game but cut it right before half en route to dominate final period.
Turgeon’s team opened the second half with an 11-0 run that gained the lead and secured the victory. Maryland received huge contributions from Morsell, who finished with 15 points, and Eric Ayala, who seemed to break out a slump with 12 points of his own.
The Terps continued their winning streak against Nebraska on Feb. 11 (more on that a bit later) and Michigan State this past weekend.
On the other side of things, not much has changed with Northwestern, which has not won a game since Jan. 11 against Nebraska — its only conference win thus far.
The Wildcats’ best opportunity to win another conference game came against Rutgers at the RAC — a location that the Scarlet Knights have not lost a game at this season. Northwestern led by as much as 16 points in the second half but lost by four in overtime.
Three things to watch
1. How will Maryland play against lesser competition? The last time the Terps hosted an opponent they should have blown out the water — Nebraska on Feb. 11 — they nearly gave the game away after the Cornhuskers reduced a 14-point lead to two with over six minutes remaining. If it wouldn’t have been for a clutch block from Smith, Maryland could have suffered its worst lost of the season, ending its win streak and undefeated home record.
After the game, Turgeon took the blame of the loss, saying he didn’t have his team prepared for the matchup.
But with the team hosting the worst team in the Big Ten Tuesday, Maryland will have to have a much better performance.
“We just let [the Nebraska] game sneak up on us the other day, and we didn’t finish it the right way, twice,” Turgeon said Monday. “Hopefully, we’ll learn from that and finish the game a little bit better. But we’ve got to be ready to play. [Northwestern is] going to battle — they’ve been a better road team at times than they have been at home...”
2. Will the Terps slow down Pat Spencer? Pat Spencer — a former lacrosse player for Loyola (Md.) and the 2019 Tewaaraton Award winner — was better than advertised against the Terps in the first meeting.
Spencer played a team-high 35 minutes, nearly notching a double-double with a team-high 17 points and nine assists. The graduate transfer is currently the second leading scorer for the Wildcats, averaging 10.7 points per game. If the Terps are going to beat Northwestern, they are going to have to limit Spencer, who is returning to his home state for the matchup.
“If we just lock into our gameplan, don’t let him to get going — just handle whatever he can do correctly on the court, I think we’ll have a better shot of coming out on top,” Wiggins said Monday. “He’s a great player. We’ve got to pay attention to him — make sure we don’t let him get going.”
3. What impact will role players have in round two? As previously mentioned, role players had a huge impact on the outcome of the first matchup. The bench, alone, combined for 27 points.
Now, facing Northwestern once again, can we expect the same?
Though held scoreless against Michigan State, Lindo played meaningful minutes while Smith faced foul trouble. He played eight minutes, while Smith Jr. and Joshua Tomaic each played one minute each.
What once was considered a deep rotation has lessened to about six or seven guys, which may play a larger role as the team’s season continues down the stretch.
“Moving forward, I liked our six guys’ minutes — except Anthony’s — the other night. A lot of them were [playing] 30, 30, 31 — I can deal with that — that’s great,” Turgeon said. “But If I have three guys at 37, 38 — it’s tough. ...And then all those guys — all six were playing well so I can handle that — that’s 180 minutes. I’ve got to figure out the other 20 minutes.”
Vegas: Maryland -15, O/U 130.5 (as of Monday afternoon)
ESPN BPI: Maryland has a 95.8 percent to win
KenPom: Maryland 74, Northwestern 58 (Maryland has a 93 percent chance to win)
Me: Maryland 75, Northwestern 63