As a freshman, Jared Nickens scored in double figures eight times as a designated 3-point shooter off the bench. The Terps won seven of those games, including against Valparaiso in the NCAA tournament, when Nickens scored 14 points in 21 minutes.
As a sophomore, despite his shot and his confidence disappearing at times, the skinny 6-foot-7 wing was in double figures seven times. Maryland won six of those games, including against South Dakota State in the NCAA tournament, when Nickens again went for 14 in 26 minutes.
As a junior, as his minutes were diminished by the arrival of freshman Kevin Huerter and his own horrendous start to the season shooting 3-pointers, Nickens scored in double figures just once. But his 12 points in 17 minutes helped the Terps score a big road win at Michigan.
Now as a senior, with his role suddenly increased with the season-ending injury to sophomore forward Justin Jackson, Nickens has already been in double figures seven times. But after helping the Terps to four easy nonconference wins, his past three double-digit efforts have come in Big Ten losses.
The latest was Wednesday, when Nickens finished with 13 points in 25 minutes off the bench. As coach Mark Turgeon said afterward, one of the reasons Nickens and Dion Wiley are getting open looks is that teams are locking down defensively on Cowan and Huerter.
They are going to let Nickens beat them.
So far he hasn’t.
Maryland’s defensive woes
Offense wasn’t the problem for the Terps against the Nittany Lions; defense was, particularly in the first half. As skilled as Penn State can be with sophomores Lamar Stevens and Tony Carr, Maryland’s inability to get key stops was again costly.
It has contributed to several of Maryland’s recent losses, most notably when the Terps couldn’t stop Juwan Morgan down the stretch at Indiana and couldn’t keep Nick Ward off the offensive boards down the stretch at home against Michigan State.
Stevens was virtually unstoppable Wednesday, scoring 25 points on 10-for-12 from the field.
Huerter, who has gained a reputation for being a pretty good defensive player, gave the Penn State forward credit for making tough shots. He did, but there were too many times Stevens had a clear path down the lane or enough of an opening under the basket.
Consciously or unconsciously, key players such as Huerter and Cowan, or even freshmen Bruno Fernando and Morsell, seem to feel that their team can ill-afford for them to get into foul trouble. It also appears as if Huerter, Cowan and Morsell are not as fresh at the end of games as their minutes have piled up.
Turgeon has tried to be a little more flexible this season than in the past by having his team play zone, but after some early success in the first half of the Illinois game, when Maryland first showed it, teams have feasted from behind the 3-point line, as the Nittany Lions did at times.
It’s not going to get any easier for Maryland, with suddenly revived Northwestern coming to College Park on Saturday after its win over No. 20 Michigan. The Wildcats have struggled to score, but they have players such as seniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, as well as juniors Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, who are going to be tough matchups.
Maryland still needs help at point guard next season after four-star point guard Tyger Campbell committed to UCLA on Tuesday, continuing a streak of recruiting misses for the Terps men’s basketball team.
When you think of tough places to play in the Big Ten, the Bryce Jordan Center is never mentioned. In terms of atmosphere, it might be one of the worst arenas in Division I when it comes to feeling like a pit.
But somehow, Maryland has never played well in its three trips to Happy Valley.
Three years ago, the Terps were lucky to win after some questionable calls went their way down the stretch. (I can still see senior forward Evan Smotrycz drawing a late foul after hooking a Nittany Lions player going for a rebound.)
A year ago, Maryland was still in a bit of a funk from its last-second loss at home to Purdue when it played the Nittany Lions on their home court. The Terps were in an even bigger one after losing to Penn State.
The Nittany Lions didn’t need any favorable calls to beat Maryland on Wednesday. And the Terps certainly showed a little more spark — and heart — than they did last year after falling behind by 10 points in the second half.
But in an arena that was more half-empty, against a team that was simply more talented than the Terps, Turgeon’s team lost again.
Maryland’s next road game, Tuesday night at Nebraska, will likely be a sellout.