The last time these two teams met, the Nittany Lions were at the beginning of their 0-10 Big Ten start. Maryland was the first opponent in Penn State’s conference schedule to escape with a narrow victory (seven points in this case). The Terrapins went on to live in the top quarter of the Big Ten, while Penn State made the basement of the conference its home.
With the resounding victory against Nebraska last Tuesday, the Nittany Lions finally relinquished the dead last spot to Northwestern. They followed it up by beating a red hot Illinois team on the road, one that had won four of its last five games coming into this tilt. Meanwhile, Maryland just got its first road win over a ranked opponent since 2008 against Iowa, and followed it up by beating Ohio State on Saturday to stay alive in the conference tournament double-bye race. It’s safe to say that both teams are feeling pretty good right about now.
It’s hard to say how tables could have turned had Penn State beaten Maryland back in December, but it certain that if the Lions are able to pull off the victory today, they’ll put themselves in great position to finish outside the Big Ten basement (and who knows, with a little bit of luck, maybe they’ll even avoid Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament altogether).
Scouting the opposition
Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith made life a living hell for Penn State the last time around. In fact, every loss to Maryland for the Nittany Lions has come at the hands of some big that has, uh, a big game. Diamond Stone, Jon Graham, the aforementioned Fernando, Damonte Dodd, you name it. The difference this time is that not only have the Nittany Lions found their shot in the past few games, Mike Watkins is starting to resemble the Mike Watkins is of yesteryear. He’s not fully there yet, but if the Watkins that played at Illinois shows up on Wednesday, life won’t be as easy inside for the Terrapins’ big duo.
Of course, the engine that makes the whole thing run for the Terps, Anthony Cowan, has gotten even better since the first game. His assist rate of 27.0 is 135th in the country, and like Melo Trimble before him, Cowan loves to get himself to the free throw line, where he’s shooting 83.5%. The rest of Maryland’s cast is fairly competent in their own right, but for the Nittany Lions to have a chance, they’re going to have to slow down these three.
What to watch for
Shooting - Penn State has found the bottom of the net over the past few games, this is something they’ll need to keep up not only if they want to win this game, but if they want to get out of the bottom four altogether. Rasir Bolton has taken fewer wild shots, Myles Dread has been less inconsistent, and even Jamari Wheeler has learned that he indeed is allowed to put the ball in the basket. If they’re on, the Lions will be hard to stop.
Big gains - Maryland was able to easily abuse John Harrar, and even Lamar Stevens to a certain extent, the last time out. How will having Watkins more readily available change that dynamic? Will Penn State opt for small ball anyway since it’s been working so well in recent games?
Foul disparity - Maryland has yet to win a game where the fouls aren’t lopsided in their favor. That’s not to say fouls have to be called strictly evenly, but I think we can all agree that a 1:4 ratio is a little much. If Penn State shoots free throws at a 1:2 ratio instead of 1:4 ratio, I like their chances. If they somehow shoot more free throws than Maryland, well...
Maryland is, without question, one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Maryland has, without question, struggled to put Penn State away since joining the conference. This team has found their groove, and playing for their coach’s job means they’re going to put it all on the line on Wednesday. It would be logical to pick Maryland for this one, but I think Penn State will get one last shot to fall in, for a change. Penn State 71, Maryland 70.