COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland wing Jared Nickens has been in that “sophomore slump” since Big Ten play began, the sharpshooter not exactly sharp and defense a season-long issue. But Feb. 27 against Purdue, Nickens drained three triples in five attempts for his first double-digit outing since early February, and March 3 against Illinois he connected on 4-of-7 from range in a 14-point effort. The latter was Nickens’ highest total since dropping 16 on Cleveland State way back in November 2015.
“He started making shots, and it made him more confident. But it’s huge for us,” said head coach Mark Turgeon a day before UMD takes on Indiana in Bloomington, Ind. “There was a time there when it was hard for me to even sub him, and now Jared, and Jaylen [Brantley] too, are getting it done. But Jared’s doing it on both ends right now. He’s getting it done defensively. But [Nickens making shots] makes us harder to guard, it spreads the floor and makes it easier for Melo [Trimble] and our post players. It’s good; I’m glad it happened.”
Junior forward Robert Carter noted that Nickens has been putting in extra time during practice, hoisting up shots before and after the sessions. Carter dubbed Nickens’ reemergence the last two nights “huge.”
“He works hard every day; Jared’s in the gym every day getting extra work,” Carter said. “He’s trying to get better, and now his shot’s falling. It’s the right time for it to fall. And defensively, he’s active in the passing lanes, being tough, getting deflections.”
Nickens, for his part, said he’s been doing what shooters do: Shoot. In addition, he said he’s turned it up a notch on the defensive end.
“[Shooting] just helps me get into a rhythm. I just shoot until I feel content with what I’m doing. I just shoot it,” Nickens said. “I would just get shots up in practice … and I just found my groove. It’s all paying off now.
“Defensively, just my awareness [has improved]. Knowing where guys are, tendencies of guys, being active, and getting after it.”
Speaking of getting after it, sophomore point guard Melo Trimble has done just that of late. After slumping for three straight games, he regained his stroke against Purdue, going for 19 points and getting to the foul line 10 times (he hit nine free throws). Then against Illinois, Trimble scored 18 and dropped five dimes in the 81-55 demolition. On top of that, Trimble’s turned the ball over a total of three times the last two nights, a major improvement over the early-February bouts.
“Melo’s playing well. I just want Melo to continue getting better and playing well,” said Turgeon, who mentioned that Rasheed Sulaimon would probably be guarding Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell. “He’s feeling good right now. Hopefully it continues.”
One guy who may not be feeling it right now is Diamond Stone. The freshman played just 12 minutes and had four points against Illinois, a game after playing a season-high 35 minutes and scoring 18 against Purdue.
“Of course he was mad. Everyone wants to play,” Carter said. “But he understands what’s going on. “
Said Turgeon: “It was situation more than anything. He’s going to play. I sit and talk to every player all the time. It’s today’s world. But [Stone] gets it. He’s good, and should be fresh and ready to go [March 6]. The bigger the stage, the better he plays and I anticipate he’ll paly well [March 6].”
It’s never easy going against Indiana in Bloomington, however. For the Terps to maintain their momentum, they’re going to have to knock off a team that hasn’t lost a home game all season. Indiana (24-6, 14-3 Big Ten) clinched the top seed in the upcoming Big Ten tournament after running roughshod over their league brethren, aside from a glaring blip in State College, Pa., Feb. 6 (a 68-63 loss).
The Hoosiers are coming off an 81-78 victory over Iowa in Iowa City March 1, knocking off the No. 15 Hawkeyes without the help of forward Robert Johnson, the second IU stalwart to suffer a significant injury (James Blackmon had season-ending surgery on his knee Jan. 5).
Even with the ailments, the Hoosiers haven’t missed a beat. Indiana’s up-tempo, push-the-pace attack, complete with primary and secondary breaks, has IU atop the Big Ten in scoring at 83 points per game. Indiana also ranks second in scoring margin (plus-13.8), first in field-goal percentage (50 percent), second in 3-point shooting (42 percent), seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2) and fourth in offensive rebounding (12 per game). The Hoosiers are only eighth in free-throw shooting (72 percent), however, their lone offensive “weakness.”
“It’ll be a tough challenge defensively for us. They average a lot of points at home, they get hot, and it’ll be a big challenge,” Turgeon said.
Defensively, the Hoosiers use their length, athleticism and uncanny anticipation to disrupt passing lanes and force turnovers. But since IU does like to run, Indiana will give up its share of buckets. In fact, they rank among the conference’s bottom tier in most defensive categories, meaning the teams that have had success against them typically out-shoot IU in a high-scoring affair (the Penn State loss notwithstanding).
The Hoosiers are 11th in scoring defense (69 points allowed per), 10th in field-goal defense (44 percent), seventh in 3-point defense (34.6 percent), seventh in blocks (3.9 per) and ninth in turnover margin (minus-0.6).
But Indiana does rebound the ball fairly proficiently, ranking third at plus-7.4, and they’re well-known for their sticky fingers as well (seven steals per game).
The Hoosiers’ bulwark up top, senior Yogi Ferrell (6-0), is one of the top two players in the Big Ten. Not only is he a noted ice-in-the-veins, clutch performer, but his numbers bear out both his offensive and defensive prowess. He ranks fourth in the league in scoring (17.1 points per), ninth in 3-point shooting (43 percent), eighth in free-throw shooting (81.3 percent), fourth in assists (5.5 per) and 12th in steals (1.2 per).
Joining Ferrell in the backcourt is senior Nick Zeisloft (6-4), who has started the last two games in the place of the injured Robert Johnson (ankle). Zeisloft, who will be on the floor against Maryland, drained four triples and scored 14 points in his first start against Illinois, and then followed up with three more 3s in an 11-point effort against Iowa. It’s been an up-and-down season for Zeisloft coming off the bench (6.7 points per game, 1.7 rebounds per), but he’s certainly making the most of his extended minutes of late.
At wing is matchup nightmare Troy Williams (6-7), who is averaging almost 13 points and six rebounds a night. Williams does his best work slashing to the rim, converting at a 53 percent rate (11th in the Big Ten), while he’s not a bad 3-point marksmen either (33 percent). He’s also been known to lock down on the defensive end, racking up more than a steal per game and recording 24 blocks.
Another wing/forward, Collin Hartman (6-7), has assumed a starting role in the wake of James Blackmon’s season-ending injury. Hartman has just a 5 and 3 line, shooting 44 percent from the field and 38 percent from distance.
“One of our keys to the game is guarding the 3-point line. It was one of our main focuses in practice. They can shoot well, so we have to lock down [on the perimeter],” Nickens said.
Hartman rotates in with OG Anunoby (6-8), who is putting up 4.3 points and grabbing 2.7 rebounds per game. But Anunoby’s main value is on defense, where he has 19 blocks and ranks fourth on the team in steals.
The starting center, Thomas Bryant (6-10), is scoring 11.7 points per game and nabbing 5.7 rebounds per. He’s shooting an eye-popping 70 percent from the field, which is first in the entire conference. Bryant also averages a block a night, holding the team lead in that category.
“We should go out there and play free and hard. I hope we’re excited. We’re playing the league champion in their building,” Turgeon said. “I think our guys will be excited, but it’s a big challenge for us and our guys need to step up. We’re showing some signs; we’re starting to play well.”