There were plenty of storylines, positive and negative, to come out of No. 8 Maryland’s (18-3, 7-2 Big Ten) 74-68 victory against No. 3 Iowa Jan. 28. There was senior wing Jake Layman’s defensive resurgence and offensive lapses. There was Robert Carter’s continued dominance inside, Rasheed Sulaimon’s clutch triples from the outside, and Jared Nickens’ missed shots both inside and outside. There was the team’s improved rebounding effort, and the squad’s deteriorating transition defense.
And then there was the white elephant in the room, the storyline on everyone’s mind before the game even tipped off: Freshman center Diamond Stone was back in the starting lineup.
Reluctant to insert Stone at the jump, even in the wake of his 39-point outburst against Penn State Dec. 30, Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon finally relented. Stone ended up playing 21 minutes Jan. 28 (less than he normally does coming off the bench), scoring nine points; recording four rebounds; and coming up with two blocks.
“He’s inserted himself into the starting lineup,” Turgeon said during his conference call Jan. 30. “The last game you saw it, using him on offense, and Damonte [Dodd] on defense. As long as he continues to improve, I think it helps everybody if he’s in our starting lineup."
The headman had preferred to start Dodd since the junior was a bit further along defensively than Stone. Plus, the freshman had a penchant for getting into early foul trouble. Which occurred once again against Iowa, Stone picking up two cheap early fouls, forcing Turgeon to reinsert Dodd and limiting Stone to just 21 minutes.
But Stone did perform better on the defensive end, moving his feet and working to font his man. He didn’t have his best game on the boards, getting pushed around from time to time, but Stone did his part to limit Hawkeyes’ big man Adam Woodbury to 11 points.
“The only way you’re going to get better is if he goes through those situations. Obviously it wasn’t the best start for him getting into foul trouble. But that was a high level game, and as he gets used to it he’ll get better with it. He just needs the experience,” Turgeon said. “[Stone's] come along way [defensively]. His ball-screen defense, transition defense, his awareness and his understanding has gotten better. He’s a big, young kid, and it takes time. He’s a smart kid and he gets it, and we all have confidence he’s going to do the right thing out there now. He’s not always going to do it right, but he’s going to try to do it right, and that’s good for us.”
Stone and Dodd rotated throughout, the latter earning 15 minutes off the bench. But one of Maryland’s rotational bigs, Michal Cekovsky, didn’t see a single minute of action. It was the second time in three games the 7-footer rode pine, his only floor time since Jan. 19 coming against Michigan State, when Cekovsky had five points in 10 minutes.
“Ceko didn’t play the other night, but that was more about who we were playing,” Turgeon explained. “I think Damonte can sub at the ‘4,’ because he can chase guards better and Ceko can sub at the ‘5.’ This team we’re playing [Jan. 31] is a little more conventional, so I think you’ll see Ceko early to give us some depth inside.”
The other Terp in question following the Iowa victory was sophomore Jared Nickens, whose shooting stroke has been off most of the season. The outside sharpshooter is connecting on just 33 percent of his triples this year, and has canned just one 3 in his last three games. Nickens was 0-for-2 against MSU and 0-for-4 against Iowa, his only points coming on a pair of midrange jumpers.
“I wouldn’t say he’s afraid. He missed a couple and passed on one the other night,” Turgeon said. “We tell our guys all the time to get to the foul line, get a layup, and get yourself going. We have confidence Jared is going to make every shot. It’s a long season and hopefully Jared’s going to start playing better.”
Nickens might have drawn iron on each occasion, but he had numerous open looks against Iowa. And so did the rest of his teammates for that matter, the Terps shooting 45 percent from the field. Maryland players were only 6-of-25 from distance, but, like Nickens, they weren’t low-percentage attempts.
“We probably took three shots I wasn’t happy with in the second half, and a couple in the first. But we also got a lot of really good looks. As coach you want to continue to get good looks, and guys just understand situations,” Turgeon said. “The key is when the game was on the line we executed at a very high level. That’s a good sign.
“Do I want us to make every shot? Yeah, but that’s not going to happen. We have some guys that will shoot the ball better as the year goes on. Right now we’re relying heavily on our defense, and our rebounding was a little better. Hopefully that will continue to improve, and if we do the other things well it will take pressure off our offense.”
Now the challenge is avoiding complacency against a team the Terps dropped triple digits on in a 100-65 drubbing Jan. 16 in Xfinity Center. Maryland held a down Ohio State squad (12-7, 4-2) to 37 percent shooting and 25 percent from range, while the Terps drilled 63 percent of their attempts and 52 percent from distance.
At one point, UMD led by 44 points until OSU went on a late “run” to draw within 35.
Robert Carter and Rasheed Sulaimon both eclipsed the 20-point thresholds with 25 and 22, respectively, the former draining 4-of-4 3-point attempts and the latter 4-of-5. Melo Trimble, meanwhile, dropped nine dimes, and Stone put up 15 points and a team-high six boards.
The Terps can’t afford to take the Buckeyes lightly, however. It’s one thing to drill an opponent in front of your home fans; it’s another to go into the lion’s den and accomplish the same feat. Fact is, OSU is 4-0 in Columbus during Big Ten play, although the Buckeyes haven’t exactly slain the conference’s upper-tier (wins over Minnesota, Illinois, Rutgers and Penn State). Still, Ohio State has won two in a row, including an overtime road victory at Illinois and a home triumph over Penn State.
“Our mental approach has to be good; physically hopefully we’ll be prepared. Mentally we have to be prepared for this game,” Turgeon said. “We have gone there and gotten our tails kicked. It should dial us into to want to go up there into Columbus and play well. Getting our guys ready, that’s important. To get where we want to be, and to be a great team -- coming off a loss or coming off a win -- you’ve got to be prepared as best you can for the next one.”
Overall, OSU resides in the bottom half of most Big Ten offensive categories. The Buckeyes are 10th in scoring offense (71 points per game), ninth in field-goal percentage (44.6 percent), 11th in 3-point percentage (34 percent), 10th in turnover margin (minus-1.1), 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9) and dead last in free-throw shooting (65 percent).
They’ve fared a better defensively, however. OSU ranks sixth in scoring (66 points allowed per), third in field-goal percentage defense (38.8 percent), fifth in 3-point defense (33 percent), seventh in rebounding margin (plus-3.5), first in blocks (5.9 per) and fourth in steals (six per).
In the backcourt, freshman point JaQuan Lyle (6-5) is averaging just under 10 points a night, but ranks sixth in the Big Ten with 4.8 assists per game. That said, he turns the ball over a good amount and has one of the lowest assist-to-turnover ratios for a starting Big Ten point guard.
Lyle had nine points, four assists and two turnovers during Terps-Buckeyes Part I.
When OSU plays its two-guard lineup, Kam Williams (6-2) enters the game. He’s averaging less than eight points per, but has the squad’s most efficient 3-point stroke (47 percent).
Williams scored nine points and canned one triple against Maryland Jan. 16.
Wing Jae’Sean Tate (6-4) has an 11 and six line, shooting a team-high 51 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from 3. He’s only a 50-percent free-throw shooter, however.
Tate had 12 points and five boards (and three turnovers) during the last OSU-UMD bout.
Forward Marc Loving (6-7) leads the Buckeyes at 13.5 points per game (42 percent from the field, 33 percent from range), to go along with 5.5 rebounds per. He’s a versatile, athletic inside-out threat, although Loving was largely absent during the Jan. 16 game. He had just three points and two rebounds with Jake Layman harassing him.
Another forward, stretch-4 Keita Bates-Diop (6-7), averages 12 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per. He shoots 45 percent from the field and 35 percent from distance, showing a soft touch beyond the arc.
Bates-Diop had a Buckeyes’ best 15 points during the last Maryland matchup, although he didn’t record a single rebound.
The starting center, Trevor Thompson (6-11), shares time with freshman backup Daniel Giddens (6-10). In 17 minutes a night, Thompson has a 6.5 and 5 line, while Giddens is putting up 4 and 4 in almost 19 minutes per. Giddens also has a team-high 40 blocks; Thompson has 33.
Thompson had a solid outing against UMD Jan. 16, recording 10 points, seven rebounds and three rejections. Giddens had two points and four boards.
“We have a tough week ahead of us; we have to play well,” Turgeon said. “We’ve done a lot of great things this year. Are we becoming closer? Yes, but every team is. It takes experiences to get where you really want to get, and how you handle those experiences is what makes you who you are – good experiences and bad experiences.”