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Penn State vs Maryland Preview: Grudge Match Edition

Neither team can afford to lose this game: can the Nittany Lions split the season series?

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams entered the seasons with high hopes in a down year for the Big Ten conference. Injuries to Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender in December put a damper on expectations for the Terrapins, who find themselves in a near “must-win” scenario with six games remaining on their schedule. Penn State has more opportunities for signature wins down the stretch, but a loss to Maryland significantly reduces the margin of error to remain on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Opponent Summary

Who When: Where: TV: KenPom Rank: Record: Vegas Line:
Who When: Where: TV: KenPom Rank: Record: Vegas Line:
Maryland Terrapins Wednesday, February 6, 6:30 PM Bryce Jordan Center BTN 39 16-9 (5-7) PSU -3.5

Since playing in Maryland at the beginning of January, both teams have stumbled. Maryland has struggled to beat anyone on the road (their only true road-win coming against Illinois in December), and was unable to upset any of the Big Ten’s top 4 teams to gain a signature win. Penn State, on the other hand, has dropped a few games they should have won in Josh Reaves’ absence, but did manage to snag a victory over Ohio State on the road. There will be no shortage for motivation going into this game, as each team must be aware of the implications of a loss to their post-season aspirations and the Big Ten standings.

Scouting the opposition

When these teams first played, Maryland was still adjusting their rotation to compensate for the injuries to Jackson and Bender. Freshman Bruno Fernando has continued to grow into one of the best young forwards in the conference. A strong performance against Purdue convinced Wisconsin that Fernando was worth double-teaming in the paint, which is a tactic Pat Chambers may employ given the success Penn State had using it against the Spartans’ Nick Ward.

Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter are the main drivers of the offensive production for the Terrapins. Penn State did a great job limiting their production from the floor in their first meeting (shooting a combined 7-20, 1-7 3pt), but gave up 18 free throw attempts in the process. If the Nittany Lions can defend effectively without fouling they have the personnel to prevent Cowan or Huerter from lighting up the scoreboard.

Maryland’s bench production has been limited due to injuries, and last week they added one more, Michael Cekovsky, to the injury report. He’s currently listed as day-to-day, but will likely be an unknown until tip-off. If he can’t go, that leaves Sean Obi and Joshua Tomaic to back-up Fernando. Obi, a senior transfer from Duke played a solid game against Wisconsin, but not having Cekovsky is still a hindrance to the Terps.

What to watch for

Fouls and free throws - Maryland dominated in terms of free throw attempts during the January meeting between these teams, out-attempting Penn State 34-4 from the charity stripe. On top of that, Lamar Stevens fouled out down the final stretch of the game. I don’t think Chambers needs to make any adjustments to prevent this, but it will be important for Tony Carr et al. to not allow the officiating to impact their play.

Watkins vs. Fernando - In their first match-up, both of these rising stars played great: Watkins finished with 17 points and 17 rebounds, Fernando with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Especially if Cekovsky is unavailable, I’d like to see Penn State go after the freshman early, feeding Watkins the ball on offense and going with a double-team on the defensive end.

Home Court Advantage - Will there or won’t there be a pulse in the BJC on a week-night game with medium stakes? Penn State is coming off an electric display of athleticism in their win over Iowa with highlights that should stir up some excitement on campus. Maryland is a turnover-prone team, which bodes well for the Nittany Lions style of play, and also leads to the types of plays that will excite the crowd inside the mausoleum arena.

Prediction

I am unnaturally optimistic heading into this game which has a high likelihood of going down to the wire. Penn State has played the Terrapins very well since the Terps joined the Big Ten (no team has won by more than six in five meetings), while Maryland has struggled mightily away from home this year. A balanced scoring effort, and a strong defensive performance led by Josh Reaves and Jamari Wheeler prove to be too much for Maryland to overcome. Penn State 77, Maryland 68