For much of the second half Wednesday night at Xfinity Center, the Maryland men’s basketball team teetered against No. 24 Nebraska.
One minute, the Terps looked as if they had wrestled control of the game away from the Cornhuskers. The next, they looked as if another excruciating defeat was inevitable.
That Maryland won — largely on the late-game takeover by freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), who scored his team’s final seven points — is something to build on.
That the Terps could have easily lost — mostly because of a series of late turnovers and silly fouls — is something for coach Mark Turgeon to fix going forward in the Big Ten.
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s 74-72 victory:
1. Given the inconsistency of their offense, the Terps need to become a better defensive team, especially in the backcourt.
Even when struggling to score this season, Maryland has shown the ability to shut down decent teams with good guards.
The Terps did it against Loyola Chicago in a 55-41 win Dec. 8 and to a large extent in a 62-60 loss at Purdue two nights earlier.
Lately, Maryland’s backcourt has become a bit leaky.
It happened in a 78-74 home loss to Seton Hall, when Myles Powell and Myles Cale combined for 50 points. It happened again against Nebraska.
James Palmer Jr. nearly had the reverse of his 26-point performance of a year ago — he had 13 points in the first 11 minutes Wednesday after scoring 24 in the second half in Lincoln, Neb., last season in a 70-66 Nebraska win.
Point guards Glynn Watson Jr. and Thomas Allen combined for 19 points Wednesday.
Though Palmer shot 7-for-19 from the field, his ability to draw fouls (he finished 9-for-13 from the free-throw line, and took one fewer free throw than the Terps as a team), allowed the 6-foot-6 senior from Upper Marlboro to dominate the Terps early and in stretches of the second half. Watson and Allen were also able to get to the basket.
It’s not that the Terps are lacking defensively in the backcourt.
Anthony Cowan Jr. was on the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team a year ago as a sophomore. Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) has been a big, physical presence since he arrived last season. And Serrel Smith Jr. has shown more on defense than on offense so far as a freshman.
With its best combination of big men on the defensive end — especially with freshman Ricky Lindo Jr. backing up fellow freshmen Jalen Smith and sophomore Bruno Fernando — Maryland’s guards need to do a better job slowing down their counterparts.
2. Aaron Wiggins should be more involved in the offense.
Unlike in several other games this season, the freshman wing seemed to be in a good shooting rhythm right from the moment he took the floor Wednesday.
The 6-6 Wiggins made a nice shot fake behind the 3-point line and hit a mid-range jumper on his first try. He hit a 3-pointer a few possessions later on his next attempt.
Wiggins hit his only other attempt — another 3 — during Maryland’s 10-2 run in the second half when the Terps erased a 47-39 deficit to tie the game at 49. He finished with eight points in 17 minutes. It was the fewest minutes he played in a game this season.
Turgeon has been on Wiggins to become more aggressive offensively, and he has done that lately. Against the Cornhuskers, he was fouled going to the basket twice, though neither resulted in him shooting free throws. His defense was better earlier in the season against less talented players.
Wing players have often disappeared in Turgeon’s offense over the years, including two currently playing in the NBA. Kevin Huerter had the same problem at times as a freshman.
Part of it is the lack of movement in Maryland’s offense, and part of it is the personalities of the players involved. Just as Turgeon eventually set up plays for Huerter, he has to do that for Wiggins, too. But Wiggins has to earn that by becoming more engaged.
Perhaps it’s time to think about moving Wiggins back into the starting lineup, as he was earlier in the season. While he will be no better than the fourth option most nights, Wiggins is fully capable of having some of the games Huerter did as a freshman.
3. As young as the Terps are, they are going to need help from their fans.
When Wednesday’s game started, Xfinity Center looked like Maryland Stadium on most Saturdays this fall: nearly empty. The announced crowd of 11,251 was the second smallest of the season. It was also the smallest for a Big Ten home game since the Terps joined the league in 2014-15.
Given the time of year (during winter break for students and right after New Year’s), starting time (right in the middle of rush hour) and opponent, it was understandable for there not to be a packed, crazy crowd.
But the dwindling attendance, which began last season, is noticeable compared with other teams in the Big Ten, where most arenas outside Rutgers and Penn State are sold out or packed regularly.
You can say all you want about College Park being a much different place than Lincoln — which drew a sellout for Maryland while the Cornhuskers were on a losing streak a couple of years ago — or Iowa City.
Much of it could have to do with the lack of support for Turgeon, and the fact that this generation of Maryland fans, like most sports fans these days, are front-runners. The recent loss to Seton Hall did as much damage to the team’s fan base as its NCAA tournament resume.
Still, home-court advantage is often a huge factor tilting the outcomes of games in college basketball, and right now the Terps are lacking in that area. Unlike the football team, the basketball team can’t count on fans from opposing schools to show up.
The next two opponents at home, No. 21 Indiana on Jan. 11 and No. 22 Wisconsin three nights later, are much bigger draws than Nebraska. Even without the students back on campus, those games should help fill the building.
The Hoosiers come to Maryland on a Friday, typically a good night to attract fans. The 8:30 p.m. tip against the Badgers is also a lot better than Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. start, which was two hours earlier because of television.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after the Terps return from a two-game road trip against Rutgers and Minnesota. Winning both, which is not out of the question, will certainly help.