First Place Terps Have Red-Hot Rutgers Coming

Maryland's new power forward, Ivan Bender, has joined the Terps, while the rest of the team is eager to play in front of the home crowd after two road games.

The Terrapins return home in first place in the Big Ten and they probably have Rutgers – their Jan. 14 opponent – to thank for that lofty status.

The Scarlet Knights, also Big Ten newbies, upset fourth-ranked Wisconsin Sunday to drop the Badgers to 3-1 in the league, right there on top in the Big Ten with Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State.

Rutgers’ 67-62 upset probably gets an asterisk as Badgers’ big man Frank Kaminsky didn’t play because of a concussion but the fact is that the Scarlet Knights kicked asterisk in the second half, blitzing the Badgers 44-27, and shooting 67 percent from the field.

“I think it’s great just to keep our guys focused,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “Anybody that can beat Wisconsin is obviously playing well so that will get everyone’s attention heading into that game.”

Turgeon talked about his Terrapins (15-2 overall, 3-1 in Big Ten) “staying focused,” and he had just overseen a return of the focus in Saturday’s solid 69-60 win at Purdue. Maryland looked off its game three days earlier in a 64-57 loss at Illinois.

“We split on the road and I thought we played well against Purdue,” Turgeon said Jan. 12 on the Big Ten Conference teleconference. “I was happy with that. It’s hard to win out there, hard to win on the road, and that was great for us. Now we’re coming home for two games and hopefully we can play well at home.”

The Terrapins have gone from a team picked 8th in the Big Ten’s preseason conference poll to a team ranked as high as 11th in the country last week, and a squad very few teams want to see pop up on the schedule as of late. Before the loss at Minnesota, when the offense fell apart and the defense followed suit, the Terrapin had won seven games in a row and had begun integrating injured stars Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz back into the lineup.

The winning formula is no secret. Maryland has won 15 games already with stellar defense – the Terps lead the Big Ten in field goal defense (.369) and are third in 3-point field goal defense (.278) – and with an offense that has overcome the lack of a consistent low-post scoring threat and it’s on mistakes (-0.9 turnover margin, last in the conference).

Again, no secret how Maryland gets it done offensively. Even when shots aren’t falling from the field, the Terps get to the line – 326 times this season, 50 times more than the next nearest Big Ten team (Iowa at 276).

Freshman point guard Melo Trimble has been better than advertised coming in (and that’s saying something). He has been the ringleader with a 15.9-points-per-game average and a Big Ten-best .886 free throw percentage. He is 117-of-132 at the charity stripe, and only one other player among the top 15 percentage leaders in the conference is over 100 attempts (Iowa’s Aaron White).

Trimble is one of six Terps hitting above 70 percent at the line, but he is also averaging a team high 32.8 minutes per game, a bit of a concern for Turgeon as Big Ten play intensifies and Maryland needs him even more.

“His reps have gone down in practice for the last couple of weeks,” said the coach. “We don’t have a lot of point guards on our roster which makes it tough to continue to practice. He didn’t play as many minutes against Illinois (31). We played him 36, versus Purdue. He says he’s fine. He doesn’t get tired.”

But Turgeon thinks the heavy minutes might be affecting Trimble’s shooting from the field (.427) and behind the 3-point line (.351)

“Obviously he’s not shooting the ball like Melo shoots it,” said Turgeon. “I’ve watched Melo shoot for three years. Anything I can do to try to get his minutes down, 32 minutes would be great but just keeping his legs fresh is important. Keeping him mentally fresh, there’s a lot on his plate. Dez was a little more like Dez (Saturday) so that’s going to help everything. And I think Richaud (Pack) is getting more comfortable playing the point, and Dion (Wiley) is starting to handle it a little better.”

Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan has an even deeper appreciation for Trimble’s game than most opposing coaches. He was a coach in the same DC Assault AAU program that Trimble came through, and even coached the young guard briefly, when Trimble was 16, and called up to the 17-and-Under squad. He was playing behind the likes of older guards like Robert Johnson (now at Indiana), Nate Britt (North Carolina), Kris Jenkins (Villanova) and even Roddy Peters.

“He was still pretty much a young buck,” laughed Jordan Jan. 12 on that conference call. “I couldn’t play him as much. I hope he doesn’t remember that.”

Jordan had more to say about the Trimble he sees now. “He’s just a guy that can put a team on his back and carry them. He has learned to organize a team as a point guard, and yet find ways to be a scorer as a two guard. That’s not easy to do.”

As Wells gets his game legs back, don’t be surprised to see him up his current 13.8 points per game average, and supplant Trimble as the team’s scoring leader. The ball will still be in Trimble’s hands more often, though, especially at the end of games where he has been money in the bank.

Trimble, Wells, Jake Layman (14.4 points per game, .527 field goal percentage), and really the entire Maryland offense will face a stern test Wednesday at 7 p.m., against a stanch Scarlet Knight defense.

“We have a hard time scoring but our defense has gotten better and better,” said Jordan.

The offense-challenged Knights (10-7, 2-2) are third in the Big Ten, yielding just 60.6 points per game but they have to because they average a Big Ten-worst 58.8 points per game. Rutgers is last in the conference in field goal percentage (.389) and last in 3-point percentage (.295).

That wasn’t the kind of production they had in badgering Wisconsin Sunday. Senior guard Myles Mack, who averages a team high 13.8 ppg, pumped in 21, 19 in the second half, before a crowd of 6,887 at Rutgers’ Louis Brown Athletic Center. Mack and senior forward Kadeem Jack (12.6 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game) pace the Knights but they also get 6.8 rebounds from former DC Assault Trimble teammate Junior Etou.

This game could be a grinder unless Maryland can avoid some of the scoring droughts that have plagued the team recently and/or make a home at the free throw line again.

Another factor could be Rutgers coming off the biggest upset in program history and refocusing by Jan. 14. Previously, the school’s biggest upset was a 1982 toppling of No. 6 West Virginia.

“We haven’t been in this situation before,” laughed Jordan, who played on RU’s 1976 Final Four team. “Last year in the AAC, we pretty much beat teams that were in the bottom half of the conference. No real significant signature wins. This year we’ve had some signature wins – at Clemson, even though we lost to Virginia we were up at halftime, the Penn State win here. So I think we have a little bit of experience bouncing back after a win.”

Along with a win over Vanderbilt, though, the Knights have some curious setbacks, losing earlier this year to St. Peters and to St. Francis (Pa.).

Turgeon, meanwhile, looks forward to running out on the home floor at Xfinity Center for the first time since Jan. 3. “It’s always nice to play at home so we’re looking forward to that. We’re expecting great crowds this week, which is fun. And we have to become a better home team, which we will.

“We’ll talk about that this week. We’ve been a really good home team but we want to become an even better one, and get comfortable playing at home with eight of our next 12 (there). It kind of gives us a chance to really think about being a better home team. We’re still getting used to playing in front of large crowds. I think each time we get a little bit more comfortable and a play a little bit better.”

Don’t expect the team’s newest piece, 6-9 Bosnian Ivan Bender to have an immediate impact in this home stand, though. Bender arrived in College Park Jan. 10, and he’s got some work to do before taking the court.

“He’s doing all the stuff you have to do to get into school,” said the coach. “He starts class next Monday, a week from today. He’s coming off knee surgery. He’s not 100 percent healthy. We’ll bring him along slowly. He still needs to see our doctor, our specialist before he gets any type of clearance, which I think he is doing that today. And then we’ll bring him along slowly.”

Turgeon also said that he liked starting one of the freshmen – Jared Nickens or Dion Wiley – on the wing to help stretch opposing defenses. He thinks Wiley does better off the bench, and was also happy with Richaud Pack’s play off the pines Saturday, too, when the senior chipped in 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Pack was 1-of-7, at Illinois as a starter. The coach also thinks Damonte Dodd, who got just two foul-plagued minutes at Purdue, will bounce back though he hasn’t been “mentally sharp” the last two games.

Following the Rutgers game, Maryland hosts Michigan State Saturday, Jan. 17.

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