Following a nine-game winning streak that vaulted it to the top of the conference standings, No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball has hit its low point of the season.
Since the win over Northwestern on Feb. 18, the Terps have dropped three of their last four games, the only win coming on a Darryl Morsell game-winning three-pointer with less than two seconds remaining against Minnesota.
The most recent loss came on Tuesday against Rutgers, a game in which Maryland seemingly had no chance. Mark Turgeon’s team trailed for the final 35 minutes and 35 seconds in that one, losing by double-digits for just the third time in this season.
And what once seemed like a near-lock for the Terps to become sole winners of the Big Ten has now become much more complex. Given Wisconsin’s win over Indiana Saturday, they cannot be a lone conference champion — at best the title will be split two ways between them and the Badgers.
In any case, Maryland will have to win its final game of the year to claim a portion of the championship, and it won’t be an easy task. The team will host No. 25 Michigan at Xfinity Center, giving it a chance to pick up another quality win that could impact tournament seeding.
“First of all, we got our energy level back. And you know, we don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” Turgeon said. “We were in a tough stretch there. So we came back and we really worked the last two days. So, I think everybody’s focus has been good the last two days.”
Sunday’s game is scheduled to begin at noon ET and can be watched on FOX.
Michigan Wolverines (19-11, 10-9 Big Ten)
2018-19 record: 30-7 (15-5 Big Ten)
Head coach Juwan Howard is wrapping up his first year in charge of Michigan, and, well, any school, for that matter. After former head coach John Beilein left Ann Arbor to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA — he’s since been relieved of his duties after just over half a season — the Wolverines turned to one of their most-lauded alumni to take the reins.
After a 19-year career in the association, Howard became an assistant coach for the Miami Heat for six seasons before getting the Michigan job. His first year couldn’t have started any better, as his team skyrocketed up the polls to land inside the top-five in early December. And after some ups and downs throughout the ensuing few months, he’s led the Wolverines back into the AP poll.
“He’s done a great job, and they’ve battled through some injuries this year,” Turgeon said. “I’m happy for him. It’s something he wanted to do, and he’s enjoying it. He’s doing a great job and he’s a great guy. If he was a real jerk, I’d have a different answer — but he’s a terrific guy.”
Players to know
Isaiah Livers, junior forward, 6’7, 230 lbs, No. 2. After coming off the bench almost exclusively as a sophomore a year ago, Livers’ third year on campus has been his best by far. Injuries caused him to miss over a month of action from mid-December to mid-January. Without Livers, the Wolverines went just 5-5 (compared to 14-6 with).
While he took a bit to get eased back in, he’s been fantastic for Michigan. On the year, Livers has started all 20 contests he’s appeared in, leading the team in scoring with 13.3 points per game. He’s shooting a lights-out 42.3 percent from beyond the arc, often making teams pay if they gave him too much space outside.
Zavier Simpson, senior guard, 6’0, 190 lbs, No. 3. Now in his third year as a full-time starter, Simpson is playing the best basketball of his career — and Michigan has needed every bit of it. He’s averaging 12.9 points per game on a stellar 47.2 percent shooting, but scoring isn’t Simpson’s best tool. On the year, he’s picking up 7.9 assists per outing, a figure that leads the entire nation, and he’s been efficient in doing so — his 2.45 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks second in the Big Ten.
“He’s certainly competitive — a really good guard in the league,” Anthony Cowan Jr. said. “Always fun to play against.”
Jon Teske, senior center, 7’1, 265 lbs, No. 15. Teske spent two years learning under vaunted big man Moritz Wagner, and his two years as a starter since have been terrific. Now in his final season with the Wolverines, Teske is putting together a career year — he currently averages 11.7 points on 47.9 percent shooting, while adding 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.0 steals per contest.
Balance. Livers, Simpson and Teske lead the Wolverines in scoring, but they’re not the only players to average double-digits this year. Franz Wagner — brother of Moritz — and Eli Brooks are also exceeding 10 points per game as the other two members of the starting five. On the year, they average 11.4 and 10.8 points, respectively, and both are hitting more than 40 percent of their shots.
And while the starters account for 80 percent of the team’s per-game scoring, Michigan has still received important bench contributions, with three other players averaging at least five points per game.
Forcing turnovers. Michigan doesn’t do much of anything poorly — the team is ranked No. 11 in KenPom for a reason. And the defense as a whole is superb, ranking 23rd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. But that’s been done in spite of one key aspect: the Wolverines struggle to push the opposition into mistakes. On the year, they force a 16.2 turnover percentage, which ranks 323rd in the country out of 353 teams.
Three things to watch
1. Will Maryland’s slide continue? Just a couple weeks ago, the Terps were living on top of the world. A solo Big Ten regular season title seemed more than possible — it was a strong probability. But the team hasn’t been the same since heading on the road to face Ohio State on Feb. 23, dropping three of four and two straight by a combined 23 points.
While this isn’t the actual end of the season — the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments still await — capping off the regular season with a win could do wonders to the team’s psyche.
2. Can Michigan’s balanced attack be contained? As mentioned above, the Wolverines can hit you from any location offensively. All five starters average double-digit scoring on efficient shooting clips, meaning the Terps can’t simply key in on one or two weapons.
Darryl Morsell — Maryland’s best defender — could be put on Livers or Simpson (or anyone else), but the rest of the defensive assignments might be in complete flux. And as good as Jalen Smith has been defensively this season, he could find himself out-muscled inside by the 265-pound Teske.
“Everybody being a threat on the court, you gotta really be able to guard the ball 1-on-1,” Morsell said. “So that’s something we’ve been focusing on — improving our 1-of-1 defense, improving our ball screen defense and just rebounding. That’s a big thing. You limit teams to just one shot, you help yourself.”
3. How does Anthony Cowan Jr. leave Xfinity Center? At the tail-end a four-year career in which he started every possible game for Maryland, Cowan is playing his final game in College Park Sunday. It is senior day for the Terps, and while there are three on the squad — walk-ons Will Clark and Travis Valmon join him — the game against Michigan will belong to Cowan.
“We all knew this day would come. It is what it is. Now all I can do is try to go out there with a bang,” Cowan said. “Just trying to stay even-keeled, not too high, not too low. But tomorrow’s definitely kind of a bittersweet feeling.”
Vegas: Maryland -3.5, O/U 139 (as of Saturday afternoon)
ESPN BPI: Maryland 66.1% chance to win
KenPom: Maryland 71, Michigan 68 (Maryland 62% chance to win)
Me: Maryland 74, Michigan 69