The Maryland men's basketball team lost, 71-68, at Indiana Jan. 22. The Terps fell to 15-7 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten. Here are four observations on the loss:
1. Maryland's close losses, especially away from Xfinity Center, are starting to add up, which might be too much to overcome on Selection Sunday.
The Terps lost three out of four games over the course of eight days in late November and early December by a total of nine points to St. Bonaventure, Syracuse and Purdue. That tough stretch proved to be a sign of things to come; Maryland has now lost four of its past six games, and its last two losses -- at Michigan and Indiana by a total of four points -- have been especially harmful to the Terps' tournament chances.
Maryland's latest loss came in Bloomington, Ind. After a three-point play by freshman guard Darryl Morsell to put the Terps up, 62-57, with 4:53 to play, Maryland scored six points, turned the ball over five times and depended too much on sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr. to create his own offense. A five point Terps lead quickly became a tie game with just more than four minutes remaining.
The biggest play of the game came with 36 seconds left. With the Terps down, 67-66, Indiana's Josh Newkirk missed two free throws. The ball hung on the rim as Morsell and sophomore Kevin Huerter waited for it to descend, but were outmuscled by the Hoosiers' Juwan Morgan, who tipped it back in for a three-point lead.
It was a microcosm of the Terps so far this year: they've battled hard for a chance to win big games in crunch time, but they've often been one or two plays short. Maryland was on the right side of those close games under the leadership of Melo Trimble from 2014-17. It's been a different story this year.
2. Morgan became the latest skilled big man to kill the Terps since sophomore Justin Jackson was shut down for the year.
Morgan came out of Indiana's blowout loss at Michigan State Jan. 19 with an ankle issue, and his status ahead of the Maryland game was questionable. He played, didn't have any issues physically and was the best player on the court. He scored 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting, pulled down five rebounds, dished out four assists, blocked two shots and had two steals.
The 6-foot-8 Morgan is typically the biggest Hoosier on the court, and Maryland usually countered by guarding him with senior Michal Cekovsky or freshman Bruno Fernando. The Terps' game plan was to sag off Morgan, who struggles to shoot from 3-point range. But most of the time, Morgan still was able to beat a Maryland big man off the bounce and get to the rim thanks to his quickness. He shot just two threes.
It wasn't the first time a skilled big man like Morgan hurt the Terps this year. Jaren Jackson Jr. hit five 3-pointers for Michigan State Jan. 4. Keita Bates-Diop scored 26 points for Ohio State Jan. 11. Moritz Wagner scored 18 points and hit four 3-pointers for Michigan Jan. 15.
Jackson would've helped guard all of those players, and probably would've been the primary defender on all of them except for perhaps Wagner. Without Jackson, Maryland has two choices against skilled big men. Cekovsky or Fernando can chase them around, or Huerter and Morsell can potentially be outmuscled. The Terps miss Jackson the most on the defensive end.
3. It was a frustrating night for Cowan.
Cowan once again played all 40 minutes, the fourth time during conference play he's played 40 or more. He was 6-for-18 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3-point range, scoring 18 points. After Maryland went up by five with 4:53 left, Cowan finished the game by missing two 3-pointers, turning the ball over twice, having two layups blocked and committing two frustration fouls.
Indiana was able to stifle the Terps' pick-and-roll offense late in the game, which in turn made it difficult for Cowan to create like he normally does. His two 3-point misses in crunch time were deep shots he had to take. One of his blocked layups came after he tried to penetrate the teeth of the Hoosiers' defense because it was the only option remaining.
Huerter nearly went the final 10 minutes of the game
without a shot
, which left Cowan as the Terps' lone crunch-time scoring option. Opponents seem to focus on Huerter first and foremost, with a top priority being to deny Huerter the opportunity to catch and shoot off of screens; it's easier for opponents to deny the ball late once they've seen every set. Huerter's also an option on the wing for Cowan when he comes off of ball screens, which weren't working late.
The entire night was frustrating for Cowan, who appeared to be hit throughout the game when he drove to the rim, which often went uncalled. As for Cowan's minutes, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon chose to enter the season without a true backup point guard, instead hoping that Morsell could handle the role. By the time conference play rolled around, it was obvious Turgeon didn't trust anyone but Cowan with the ball in close games. With nine games left, it's worth monitoring whether Cowan wears down.
Turgeon signed combo guard Eric Ayala as part of his 2018 recruiting class. Ayala should be able to handle the ball some to spell Cowan next year.
4. Fernando got hurt and Cekovsky wasn't effective.
Another reason Maryland struggled to score in crunch time was that Fernando
sprained his right ankle
in the second half and the Terps didn't have him down the stretch. Fernando's injury combined with Cekovsky's ineffectiveness meant the Terps had no big man to feed for post touches and easy baskets. While Cekovsky rolled to the hoop with impunity
against Minnesota Jan. 18
, he had no such luck at Indiana.
As for Fernando, this is the third ankle injury he's suffered this year. He missed three weeks during the preseason with a high left ankle sprain and missed two games after suffering a low right ankle sprain against Ohio Dec. 7. It'll be a significant issue if Fernando is forced to miss time with this ankle injury, considering the Terps take on Michigan State and its imposing front line Jan. 28.