No. 9 Maryland hosts unranked Rutgers on Tuesday in College Park, Md., as the teams sitting third and tied for fourth in the Big Ten Conference standings jockey for even better position.
Four straight victories have moved Maryland (17-4, 7-3 Big Ten) within a half game of league-leading Michigan State and Illinois. The Terrapins’ next opponent in a big week? No. 20 Illinois on the road on Friday.
Rutgers (16-6, 7-4) is another surprising team in a conference flexing its muscles with as many as 12 teams in the hunt for spots in next month’s NCAA Tournament. The Scarlet Knights had won four of their previous five games before falling Saturday to Michigan at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The game on Tuesday promises to be a matchup of two programs building their pedigrees on defense. Long-armed Maryland is fifth in the conference allowing just 62.2 points per game and is fourth with 4.8 blocked shots per contest. Rutgers, picked 12th in the Big Ten preseason poll, has been even better on that end of the floor, second in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 61.1 points allowed per game, and second in defensive field-goal percentage (38.0).
“Rutgers basketball is not giving up points, not giving up points in transition,” explained head coach Steve Pikiell. “I don’t care how we get our points. The most important thing is how the other team doesn’t get points. We have to defend.”
But despite their most successful season since joining the Big Ten in 2014-15, the Scarlet Knights haven’t been able to break through much on the road where they’re just 1-3 (the Michigan loss was technically on a neutral court), with the only win at 13th-place Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Maryland ran its home record to 12-0 last Thursday with an impressive 82-72 win over Iowa.
“We haven’t won a lot of road games,” admitted Pikiell. “No one in our league has.”
Maryland has won its last two road games but must hold service at home. Senior guard Anthony Cowan pumped in a career-high 31 points against Iowa and 6-10 Jalen “Stix” Smith had his fourth straight double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called that performance Cowan’s best game, and a lot of that had to do with Maryland committing just 10 total turnovers.
“The game is so much easier for (Cowan) because he just figured out how to play it,” said Turgeon. “I got tired of us getting on him and showing him film — and boom — he just flipped. He has just become this terrific, understanding basketball player. And what’s amazing is he’s helping me coach the team when we’re not boxing out or not communicating.”
Maryland has averaged just 8.3 turnovers per contest in its four-game win streak.
Rutgers, which was ranked nationally this season for the first time since 1978-79, gets 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game from sophomore forward Ron Harper Jr., and 9.0 points and 8.0 rebounds from 6-10 sophomore Myles Johnson. Johnson is among national leaders with his 65.9 percent shooting from the field, and Pikiell has a young team, ranked 243rd in total experience, according to Kenpom.com rankings.
Following this contest, Rutgers is back home at the Rutgers Athletic Center where the Knights are 15-0, to host Northwestern on Feb. 9. Maryland heads to Illinois and will play four of its ensuing six games on the road.
–Field Level Media