COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Here’s what the New Year holds for the No. 4 Maryland Terrapins: lots of venues like Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena that are going to be jam-packed with screaming fans and hungry teams ready to take a shot at the Terrapins.
“I imagine it’s going to be a great crowd,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon of the Jan. 2 8 p.m. tip-off at Northwestern in the Terps’ first Big Ten road test. “They’ll be super-excited about their program and us coming in ranked so high. We expect it to be a loud crowd.”
The Wildcats, who have never been to the NCAA Tournament, are off to a school record 13-1 start, and opened Big Ten Conference play Wednesday with an 81-72 win at Nebraska. Oh yeah, Northwestern is 9-0 at home so far.
“We haven’t talked about the environment, we just talked about our opponent and what they do best,” said Melo Trimble, who is coming off the best 3-for-15-shooting game maybe in school history. “We’re not really focused on who’s going to be there, we’re just worried about Northwestern.”
Good plan. The former Mildcats gave Maryland (12-1, 1-0) all the Terrapins wanted last year in their lone meeting, the Terrapins coming from 12 points down to win 68-67 on Dez Wells’ tip-in at the buzzer. Trimble had 27 in that meeting, and bragging rights against Northwestern then-freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, who Trimble got to know a little better over drills at Seth Curry’s offseason camp.
‘It was a tough game, we were down the whole game and had a big comeback like we did against Penn State,” said Trimble, who Turgeon credited with being the catalyst behind freshman center Diamond Stone’s glittering 39-point, 12-rebound effort in the 70-64 win.
“A lot of Diamond’s points were because Melo was just so aggressive offensively,” said Turgeon. “Melo wasn’t finishing but he was getting to rim and making plays…That was the best 3-for-15 game I’ve ever seen in my life. The guy was totally in control the second half.”
Turgeon said Penn State put a premium on stopping Trimble, something he expects to see more of as the Big Ten schedule begins. “The whole league is trying to stop Melo, it was painfully obvious on the break. There would be three guys trying to stop Melo, then Diamond just had to catch it and lay it in. Or he’d get to the rim and Diamond would finish.”
Stone finished strong in a memorable Maryland moment, setting school records for free throws made (19) and attempted (25), broke Joe Smith’s freshman scoring record (33), and set Xfinity building records in all those categories, as well. Still, it doesn’t seem like enough to make Turgeon change anything in his rotation.
“(Stone) will come off the bench next game,’ the coach said. “We’ll see as time goes on. I have to keep him out of foul trouble. I think it helps him coming off the bench. He started the second half, obviously that was big. He played starter minutes. He finished the game, that’s really what’s important. In these Big Ten games, it’s so intense early I like to keep him out of foul trouble because he’s so important to us.”
Turgeon likes what Damonte Dodd brings defensively at the start of game, too, a bonafide rim protector to help a team that’s still getting beat off the dribble an awful lot. Still, the Terrapins need more from the 6-11 Dodd, who has more fouls (6) than points (1) and the same number of rebounds (6) the last two games.
“We need Damonte to step up and start playing like the Damonte we all know,” said the coach. “He needs a little more playing time but hopefully he’ll play well. Our ball-screen defense needs to be good tomorrow night.”
Northwestern will run the Terrapin defenders through an obstacle course of screens and former Duke player and assistant, coach Chris Collins maybe runs more sets than any coach in the country. “They’ll have three or four more sets by Saturday night that they haven’t shown,” deadpanned Turgeon.
But Turgeon has also seen what third-year coach Collins, a familiar ACC face, is doing with the program, and has a lot of respect for the job Collins is doing. “It’s going to be a tough game,” added Turgeon. “They’ve learned how to win since we played them here last year.”
The Wildcats face an additional challenge, though, losing their best big man – 7-foot Romanian center Alex Olah -- three games ago. Out indefinitely with a broken foot, Olah was averaging 12.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Without him Northwestern is more vulnerable at the rim on defense and has had to adjust to life without the team’s most consistent offensive low post threat.
After a slow start at Nebraska, the Wildcats made that adjustment and pulled away for a solid victory Wednesday. Northwestern – stop us if this sounds familiar – overcame a 12-point second half deficit, getting a big lift from 6-8 freshman Derek Pardon, playing just his second game. He came off the bench to score 28 points and yank down 12 rebounds.
Previously, Collins had talked about redshirting the big freshman but he was the key in overpowering a smaller Cornhuskers unit. He will face no such size advantage against Maryland’s big, deep front line and his matchup with Stone seems an early key to watch.
Along with Pardon, the ‘Cats have 6-8 sophomore Gavin Skelly and another familiar face back to the old ACC days in 6-10 Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren. Van Zegeren is listed as the probable starter for Saturday, and he’s shooting 57 percent from the field though averaging just 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds.
The Wildcats like to do most of their damage from the perimeter, and are now third in the Big Ten and 18th in the nation with 10.0 3-point field goals per game. Five different Wildcats, led by freshman Aaron Falzon with 28, have hit at least 18 3-pointers this season. Falzon is a 6-8 stretch forward with inside-out skills. Robert Carter, Jr., needs to make things tough for him, likely another key.
The 6-3 McIntosh has been a difference-maker this season, averaging 15.9 points and 6.9 assists, establishing himself as the team’s floor general and leader. Senior guard Tre Demps is chipping in 15.4 points but shooting just 40 percent from the field, 33 percent behind the arc and taking some heat from Northwestern fans.
Despite some sluggish starts, including that 25-percent shooting against Penn State in the first half, Carter thinks the Terrapins versatility offensively makes Maryland a tough out wherever they play.
“It definitely makes it tougher (for opponents),” said Carter. “I’m sure before the year everyone knew we had guys that could score the ball on the offensive end (but then Stone got 39). (Opponents) will continue to figure out ways to try to stop us and we’ll continue to figure out ways to adjust.”
Coming off that dismal first 32 minutes offensively against Penn State, Turgeon said the Terps shot more contested shots than any game this year but the consensus was Maryland missed shots the Terrapins regularly make. The key was not panicking as the Nittany Lions built a 13-point lead. Maryland sped the game offensively after unsuccessfully trying to hurry PSU defensively in the first half.
“We took shots that we normally make and they didn’t fall,” explained Carter. “Therefore in the second half we decided to drive the ball. That’s all that was. I don’t think we ‘settled’ for shots. In the second half we played off penetration and Diamond had 39.”
The fear for the Turtles is a game like that on the road – poor offensive causing the rest of their game (defense) to break down, too. These Terrapins don’t have much experience in hostile venues yet, with four neutral-site contests and the one actual road loss at North Carolina. Can they flip the switch outside of Xfinity Center?
“We’ve got veteran players,” said Turgeon. “Each time we step away from home we get a little bit better, and maybe we’ll play a little more relaxed because it is on the road. It will be a kind of us-against-the-world-type situation so maybe we’ll be relaxed when it tips off.
That scenario would be ideal since the Terrapins begin a key stretch of three road games in the next four contests. After Northwestern, Maryland hosts Rutgers, Wed., Jan. 6, and then it’s back on the road with games at Wisconsin on Jan. 8, and at Michigan on Jan. 12.
How Maryland plays through this stretch will tell us a lot more about this team, which is still looking for consistency on offense and to step up the level of defense.
“It was kind of amazing the way we shot the ball and then it was amazing the way we shot it at the end, felt like we made everything,” said Turgeon. “Our guys never give up. They believe. I’m still trying to figure it out offensively. We made huge strides, 47 points in the second half against Penn State trying to slow the game down, was a good sign for us.”