The Maryland men's basketball team lost at Penn State, 74-70, Feb. 7. The Terps are now 16-10 overall and 5-8 in the Big Ten. Here are four observations on the loss:
1. The Terps' NCAA Tournament hopes may be shot.
Between Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, the Big Ten is certain to get at least four bids in the NCAA Tournament. Several teams -- including Nebraska (9-4 in the Big Ten), Penn State (7-6), Northwestern (6-6) and Maryland -- have been chasing after a potential fifth bid. Now ninth in the Big Ten, the Terps are no more than an afterthought in the tournament conversation.
Maryland's loss to Penn State was its seventh loss in 10 games and fourth in five. It was also the sixth straight road loss for the Terps, with the last four coming by one, three, eight and four points. Maryland's lone true road win came at Illinois Dec. 3, when the Terps blew a 19-point halftime lead and were fortunate to win in overtime.
Maryland's loss to the Nittany Lions was all too similar to the rest of its losses this year, outside of blowout losses at Michigan State Jan. 4 and Ohio State Jan. 11. The Terps did several things well -- five players scored in double figures, they shot 54.3 percent from the floor, they outscored Penn State, 35-33, in the second half -- but were never able to pull even and were seemingly a few plays short, or one player short, from a win.
2. It wasn't a good defensive performance by Maryland.
The Terps were once again missing senior big man Michal Cekovsky, leaving them with eight available scholarship players. Their lack of depth hurt them most on the defensive end. Penn State shot 51.9 percent from the field, hit nine 3-pointers and grabbed nine offensive boards, a few of which kept key possessions alive down the stretch for the Nittany Lions.
A healthy Terps roster can play man-to-man defense effectively, as they're able to switch freely when defending screens thanks to versatile defenders like Jackson, Cekovsky, sophomore guard Kevin Huerter and freshman guard Darryl Morsell. With only Huerter and Morsell healthy, they're more susceptible in screens leading to mismatches and easy looks around the hoop. The Terps also might have some tired legs, as seen on some less-than-stellar closeouts on 3-pointers.
Most of all, Maryland didn't have an answer for Penn State power forward Lamar Stevens, who sophomore Justin Jackson would've checked if healthy. Stevens scored a game-high 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting and was the latest in a growing line of big wings or skilled big men that the Terps can't handle. They've struggled with Purdue's Vincent Edwards, Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr., Indiana's Juwan Morgan and Michigan's Moritz Wagner in recent weeks, as well.
3. Senior guard/forward Jared Nickens had one of his best games of the year.
Nickens scored 13 points in 25 minutes off the bench; it was his seventh double-digit scoring performance of the season and third of Big Ten play. Nickens was 5-for-10 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range.
Nickens' last 3-pointer
came with 1:12 remaining in regulation and cut the Terps' deficit to 73-70, but Maryland came up empty on its next two possessions to put the loss on ice. Nickens' two other 3-pointers came courtesy of passes by Huerter.
Nickens is averaging 16.1 minutes and 5.6 points per game so far this year. He's shooting 44 percent from 3-point land, third among regulars behind redshirt freshman forward Joshua Tomaic and Huerter. Nickens had made just nine 2-point baskets coming into the game at Penn State, but he had two Feb. 7, one of which was a
slick, step-back, baseline jumper
in the second half.
4. The Terps have a fairly quick turnaround with Northwestern in town Feb. 10.
Sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr. again played all 40 minutes Feb. 7, while five others -- Huerter (37 minutes), Morsell (33), Nickens (25), junior guard Dion Wiley (23) and freshman forward Bruno Fernando (30) -- played a lot of minutes, as well. Senior center Sean Obi (10 minutes) and Tomaic (two) didn't play much, as Penn State's athleticism in the frontcourt wasn't a great match for Obi, and Tomaic struggled defensively in limited possessions.
Cowan, Huerter, Morsell, Nickens, Wiley and Fernando will be asked to play more big minutes against Northwestern. The Wildcats are 15-10 overall, 6-6 in the Big Ten and have won four of their past five games. They beat tournament-bound Michigan, 61-52, at home Feb. 6. Senior guard Bryant McIntosh scored 24 points and senior guard/forward Scottie Lindsey, 19, to lead Northwestern to the victory.
The Wildcats have four scorers averaging double digits between McIntosh, Lindsey, redshirt junior forward Vic Law and junior center Dererk Pardon. McIntosh has scored more than 1,600 points and dished out nearly 700 assists during his four years in Evanston, Ill. Six-foot-7 Law could be the next big wing to give the Terps trouble with Jackson out.