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Maryland men’s basketball vs. Rutgers preview (part two)

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The Terps and Scarlet Knights meet again for a crucial late season tilt.

Rutgers v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Maryland men’s basketball looks to continue its resurgent late season run on Sunday afternoon, taking to Piscataway, New Jersey, to meet Rutgers for the second time this season.

The Terps are trending in the right direction at just the right time, winning each of their last three games to climb to ninth in the Big Ten and reignite their NCAA Tournament hopes. With four games left including Sunday’s contest, Maryland’s sprint to the finish line could be just enough to rescue what’s been an up-and-down season to this point.

The game tips off at 3 p.m. and will be televised on Big Ten Network.

What happened last time

Maryland’s first meeting with Rutgers came right at the outset of Big Ten play, with the Terps putting forth one of their worst shooting performances of the season in 74-60 loss on their home floor.

Maryland endured countless scoring droughts in the first half of that Dec. 14 contest, shooting a lowly 34.6% from the field after 20 minutes. However, despite its shooting woes, the team managed to stay level with the then-No. 19 Scarlet Knights, leading 28-27 at the halftime break.

But Rutgers quickly separated itself as the second half got underway, ripping off 10-2 and 13-2 scoring runs that allowed the Scarlet Knights to build a 55-41 lead that felt insurmountable for a team Maryland team struggling to string together any consistent offensive possessions.

Sophomore forward Donta Scott tried to keep the Terps in the game, scoring a career-high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting and going 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. But the Rutgers duo of Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker proved to be too much, combining for 45 points to lead the Scarlet Knights to their first Big Ten win of the year.

“We’ve made a lot of changes since that game,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “I don’t even think they could watch the old film to be honest with you ... We’ve changed so much. We’ve had to, we’ve had to figure it out.”

What’s happened since

Both teams appeared to be trending in opposite directions after that game on Dec. 14, only for each to be in similar positions coming into Sunday’s game.

Maryland, reeling after back-to-back losses, got back on track with a 84-71 win over La Salle, but fell three days later to Purdue on the road 73-70. After losing their first three matchups to high-major programs, the Terps pulled off a stunning road upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin, giving the team a massive boost as it waded deeper into Big Ten play.

Since then, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the Terps. The team dropped each of its next three games before upsetting then-No. 12 Illinois 66-63, knocking off then-No. 17 Minnesota two weeks later to set a program-record for road wins over ranked opponents with three.

Maryland went 1-3 after that before going on its recent three-game win streak, lingering among the middle of the pack in the Big Ten with a chance to continue climbing on Sunday.

The Scarlet Knights went on to defeat then-No. 13 Illinois in their next game, moving to 2-0 in Big Ten play and looking like one of the top teams in the conference. But Rutgers went on to fail two of its biggest tests toward establishing itself among the conference elite, falling to then-No. 23 Ohio State and then-No. 10 Iowa.

The team went on to lose five straight games after that, dropping to 7-6 and 4-6 in Big Ten play and well out of the AP Top 25 rankings after what was a promising start. But the Scarlet Knights rebounded with five wins over their next seven games, taking down the likes of Indiana, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota to avoid sliding any further down the Big Ten standings.

Each of its two losses came at the hands of No. 15 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan, two of the Big Ten’s top teams this season. However, Rutgers was defeated by the Wolverines by just seven points, one of few single-digit wins that Michigan has had this season.

Three Things to Watch

1. How much have the Terps improved? In the last meeting between these two teams, Rutgers looked head and shoulders above Maryland. But the Terps have made improvements in several areas since that loss and this final game against Rutgers is their most difficult game remaining on the schedule. Just how well the team performs on Sunday will be a testament to how far it has come, and whether or not there’s hope for the future.

“We’re just gonna play our game and when the time comes just do our jobs,” Scott said. “Play hard, defend and may the better team win.”

2. Can Maryland continue its win streak? Stringing together wins in the Big Ten has been no easy task for any team this season, but especially for the Terps. Prior to its recent run of three wins, Maryland had not won back-to-back games since conference play had begun. Rutgers is a much different beast than Nebraska, but head coach Mark Turgeon will look for his team to carry over its recently gained momentum and not fall back into its game-to-game inconsistency issues.

“I think ever since the Penn State game we’ve had good attitudes, positive energy,” Turgeon said. “I think we’re a confident team. We’re not overconfident, but we know we got to play well and extremely well tomorrow to win. But we believe in ourselves.”

3. Will Wiggins and Ayala lead the way once again? The junior guard tandem has been on a tear as of late, with each finding their scoring form late in the season. The two have combined for 81 points over the last two games, with Wiggins averaging 20.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in his last three games. Ayala reached a new career-high against Nebraska last Wednesday, scoring 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting to go with seven rebounds.

“[I’m] just continuing to be aggressive, staying confident, being comfortable,” Wiggins said. “My teammates believe in me, so every shot I shoot I’m confident that it’s a good shot for our team.”

Predictions

Vegas: Rutgers -4

ESPN BPI: Maryland 36.2% chance to win

KenPom: Rutgers 67, Maryland 63 (Maryland 36% chance to win)

Me: Rutgers 62, Maryland 57