A year ago, Maryland lost its Big Ten opener at home to Purdue. Because it was the first time the Terps started league play 0-1 since leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference after the 2013-14 season, it put some pressure on Mark Turgeon’s team heading into a road game at Illinois two days later.
Maryland won in Champaign — barely.
After leading by as many as 22 points early in the second half, the Terps needed a young team under first-year coach Brad Underwood to fall apart late in regulation and sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr.’s heroics to win in overtime.
A similar thought must have going through Cowan’s head midway through the first half of Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Penn State. After leading early by nine points, Maryland fell behind by eight before trimming the deficit to one by half and winning, 66-59.
Given that the Terps would play the second of the two pre-Christmas Big Ten games at Purdue on Thursday, Cowan and his teammates knew that beating the Nittany Lions would take a little pressure off going on the road to raucous Mackey Arena.
Asked whether Saturday’s matchup was almost a “must” win situation without saying it publicly, Cowan said, “Yeah, definitely. Our biggest thing that we wanted was to come out 1-0.
“I think that does a lot for our momentum-wise in the Big Ten. Also for our freshmen. It’s going to be a crazy game up at Purdue. We can just get ready for that now.”
Here are three takeaways from Maryland’s win over Penn State:
1. The Terps need to hit some early 3s to open things up for their big men.
Maryland has made a more concerted effort to get the ball inside than in any of Turgeon’s previous seasons, even when the Terps had Diamond Stone and Robert Carter Jr. for the 2015-16 season.
Turgeon knows that to take full advantage of sophomore center Bruno Fernando and freshman forward Jalen Smith (Mount Saint Joseph), the Terps are going to have to knock down open 3-pointers when opposing defenses double-team their bigs.
Maryland started its last two games shooting 1-for-6 on 3-pointers in the opening half.
It allowed No. 4 Virginia, which had hit eight of 15, to build a nine-point halftime lead in its 76-71 win over the Terps on Wednesday night in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It prevented Maryland from expanding on its hot start against Penn State.
Given that they’re likely not going to get as many calls at Purdue as they did the past two games, especially against the Nittany Lions, the Terps are not going to be able to overcome cold shooting with free throws.
For a team that has had a history of playing fast and loose with the ball, Maryland had done a fairly good job of taking care of the ball in their first four games, averaging just over 11 turnovers and making no more than a dozen.
In the past four games, that number has jumped to 17 a game — the exact total the Terps committed against the Nittany Lions on Saturday. In the past two games, Maryland made 31 to just 10 for the opposition, including a 14-2 disparity against the Cavaliers.
“I think it’s sometimes not just making the simple play,” said Cowan, who had a team-high six against Penn State. “It’s a very young team, only seven or eight games out, so the thing is I think we can take of it.”
Outside of freshman wing Aaron Wiggins, the Terps have yet to find much production from their bench. After averaging 9.5 points in 33 minutes over the first two games as a starter, Wiggins has averaged 11.8 in a little under 30 minutes off the bench.
Beyond Wiggins, the rest of the Maryland bench — aside from sophomore guard Darryl Morsell (Mount Saint Joseph) scoring 15 in his one game as a reserve and Fernando getting 15 after being benched briefly for one game, too — the Terps don’t go very deep.
Freshman forward Ricky Lindo Jr. has certainly been the most productive overall. In a little under nine minutes a game, Lindo has averaged 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 points, with five assists, five turnovers, five steals and four blocked shots.
Freshman guard Serrel Smith Jr. is averaging 3.6 points in nearly 12 minutes a game, but is only 5-for-21 on 3-pointers. It’s the main reason he is out there, at least right now, and unless he can shoot, sophomore Reese Mona might be a better option.
Redshirt senior forward Ivan Bender is averaging less than a point and rebound in four minutes a game, but has six turnovers and zero assists. Bender has always been a high-volume rebounder and a pretty good passer for his size, but right now he is doing neither.
Redshirt sophomore forward Joshua Tomaic, who seemed to be developing into a solid bench player last season when Bender was out with a knee injury, has averaged two points and a rebound in 5.3 minutes, but has not played the past two games.
Asked why he didn’t use anyone aside from Wiggins as well as Lindo (for just two minutes) off the bench in the second half Saturday, Turgeon gave an honest answer.
“We wanted to win the game,” he said. “That’s what’s important right now. Our locker room is really happy right now. We coached to win the game today. But I’ve got to figure it out.
“I’ve got to get Serrel in there because Serrel’s a good player. And I’ve got to figure out our backup post, what I’m going to do there if it’s not small [with one big man]. I’ve got ’til Thursday to try to figure it out, so we’ll see.”