After taking down then-No. 18 Iowa, 82-72, Saturday for its best win of the season, No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball returns to Xfinity Center Tuesday for a showdown with Rutgers.
While the Terps moved up six spots in Monday’s AP Top 25 poll, the Scarlet Knights dropped out of the rankings after being as high as No. 24 — the first time they’ve was in the poll since 1979.
As of Monday afternoon, Maryland currently sits in second place in the Big Ten standings (0.5 games back from first place), while Rutgers is tied with No. 17 Iowa for third place. With a win over the Scarlet Knights and a No. 16 Michigan State loss Tuesday, the Terps will be tied with Illinois for first place in the conference.
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be aired on Fox Sports 1.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (16-6, 7-4 Big Ten)
2018-19 record: (14-17, 7-13 Big Ten)
Head coach Steve Pikiell enters his fourth season at the helm for Rutgers. Before leading the Scarlet Knights, Pikiell coached at Stony Brook, where he guided the team to six postseason appearances in seven years and was named the 2016 America East Conference Coach of the Year.
Pikiell has continued to build up the Rutgers program. He began his tenure with a 9-1 record after 10 games — the best head-coaching debut in program history. Last year, Pikiell and his team took home seven victories in the Big Ten — its most in conference play in 13 years.
“[I’m] happy for Steve — he’s one of the good guys in the business,” head coach Mark Turgeon said Monday. “He’s doing it the right way, he’s building it his way.”
In just 11 conference games this season, the Scarlet Knights have tied that same win total and will have the opportunity to surpass it Tuesday at Xfinity Center.
Players to know
Ron Harper Jr, sophomore guard/forward, 6’6, 245 lbs. No. 24. If Maryland is going to beat Rutgers, its effort will start with Harper — the team’s leading scorer. The sophomore from the Garden State, who is continuing to build off a freshman year campaign where he played in all 31 games and put up 7.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per contest, averages 11.6 points and grabs 5.8 rebounds per game.
Harper can be very hot and cold in the scoring category, though. After putting up a career-high 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting in a five-point loss to Iowa Jan. 22, the Scarlet Knight went 1-of-7 for only two points the following game against Nebraska Jan. 25. Most recently, Harper scored 16 points and three points in his last two contests, respectively.
Geo Baker, junior guard, 6’4, 185 lbs., No. 0. After starting 60 games in his first two years with the program, Baker has played well for the Scarlet Knights in his junior season. He hasn’t started since Dec. 30, but has still been effective. He currently leads the team in assists (67) and steals (26), while he ranks third in points per contest (9.7).
“He’s very shifty,” senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. said Friday. “He can score around the rim. Then you always have to keep a hand up because you never know when he’s shooting it. He’s just a really all-around good offensive player.”
However, the Rutgers guard is coming off one of his worst showings of the season. Against Michigan, Baker only had three points — one point more than his season low — on 1-of-9 shooting from the field.
Myles Johnson, sophomore center, 6’11, 255 lbs, No. 15 Johnson is the presence inside for the Scarlet Knights. He averages 9.0 points per contest but is impressive in other areas of the game as well.
The sophomore center grabs 8.0 rebounds a game, which ranks eighth in the Big Ten, and swats at least one shot away per game. He’s one of three players — including Harper and Montez Mathis — that has started every game for Pikiell this season.
Defense. For the first time in 41 years, Rutgers was ranked in the AP Top 25 poll in January. And the team got to that point thanks to its tenacious defense.
The Scarlet Knights allow 89.2 points per every 100 possessions, which ranks 12th in the nation, and force their opponents to turn it over on 20.4 percent of the time, according to KenPom. With the team ranked second in the conference in steals (7.0 per game) and scoring defense (61.1 points per game), nothing seems to come easy against Rutgers.
Shooting. Rutgers does a great job at not allowing its opponents to put the ball in the basket, but it struggles at times from the offensive end — particularly from the free-throw line and from deep.
The team ranks last in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (30.5 percent) and second-to-last in free throw percentage (64.5 percent).
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland keep it rolling after its biggest win of the season? Maryland is playing its best basketball of the season — especially after taking down Luka Garza and Iowa at home Saturday.
“We’re kind of in just a mid-season rhythm right now,” sophomore guard Eric Ayala said Friday. “We’ve kind of gotten used to the games and the pace of the games. ... We understand our team a lot better now than we did before. So it’s all coming together.”
The Terps are riding high on a four-game winning streak, but their next stretch of games should be telling. After Rutgers, Maryland heads to Champaign, Illinois, to face the Fighting Illini, hosts Nebraska and then heads to East Lansing, Michigan, to play the Spartans.
Maryland has not lost a game yet at the Xfinity Center this season, and Rutgers is 1-6 at games away from the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center). If the Terps are going to continue their hot streak, their real test begins Tuesday. While a win would continue to boost the team’s confidence, a loss could stall it a bit as the team heads into one of its toughest stretches of basketball.
2. How will Anthony Cowan Jr. build off his career night? Cowan continues to break records every night. Most recently, the senior guard set a new career high Saturday, scoring 31 points to go along with six assists and six rebounds.
Cowan isn’t forced to take over every game as he did against the Hawkeyes, but Saturday night could offer him some momentum as the team is midway through conference play and slated with a tough upcoming schedule.
3. Who wins the battle between the Terps’ offense and the Scarlet Knights’ defense? Offensively, Maryland has been on fire the last few games with the dominance of Jalen Smith, Cowan’s career night and the ability for Aaron Wiggins to come off the bench and produce.
Over the past three games, the Terps have averaged 78.67 points per contest, including their first 80-plus point performance since Dec. 29 against Bryant.
But Maryland is facing a defensive monster in Rutgers, which has only allowed its opponents to score more than 80 points twice this season — most recently against then-No. 19 Iowa Jan. 22.
Vegas: Maryland -7.5, O/U: 130.5 (as of Monday afternoon)
ESPN BPI: Maryland has a 79.1 percent chance to win.
KenPom: Maryland 69, Rutgers 61 (Maryland has a 74 percent chance to win.)
Me: Maryland 70, Rutgers 60