COLLEGE PARK — Maryland fans have complained since the Terps joined the Big Ten five years ago about the lack of rivalries, because of the league’s imbalanced schedule as well as the physical distance between their school and the other 13.
In terms of how the games played out, the matchups between Maryland and Purdue produced their share of down-to-the-wire finishes, including the first game this season at Mackey Arena in early December.
The biggest problem was similar to what the Terps had experienced for years against Duke and North Carolina: After Maryland had won the first two meetings in its first two seasons in the Big Ten, Purdue had won the next five.
That changed Tuesday night at Xfinity Center when the game followed a similar script — the Boilermakers jumping out to a big lead that reached double-digits early in the second half — but had a much different ending.
For Maryland and those fans who made it through the rush-hour traffic and the rain — many didn’t at the start, when the place was more than half-empty — it was a much happier result.
1. Jalen Smith was a few missed shots away from a monster game.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon summed it up best when he said of the freshman forward from Baltimore, “Stix was as bad as he could be and then he was as good as he could be.”
The former Mount Saint Joseph star and McDonald’s All-American set the tone early missing his first five shots — all in the first three minutes — and also set the tone during Maryland’s second-half comeback.
Smith, who eventually wound up with 14 of his team-high 16 points after halftime, was a more than respectable 7 of 15 from the field, but he missed all four of the 3-point shots he attempted.
While a couple of the 3-pointers were ill-advised, coming early in the shot clock and stopping momentum when Purdue star Carsen Edwards followed up by burying 3-pointers of his own, they showed something else.
Turgeon has been on Smith for being more aggressive, which he certainly was when he scored 10 during a stretch that saw he and fellow freshmen Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins score all 21 of their team’s points.
Maryland freshmen Jalen Smith, Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins combined for 21 straight points in one stretch as the No. 24 Terps erased an 11-point deficit in the second half to beat No. 12 Purdue, 70-56.
The Terps are 9-0 this season when the skinny 6-10 forward scores at least 15 points, which means there’s a pretty direct correlation between Smith playing well and Maryland winning.
2. This could be Turgeon’s best defensive team at Maryland.
Two days after the Terps lost at Purdue, they beat Loyola of Chicago, 55-41, at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. It was, at the time, the fewest points scored this season by one of last season’s Final Four teams.
That suffocating defense has been on display again the past two games for Maryland, first with last week’s 60-45 win at Nebraska and then Tuesday night, when the Terps held the Boilermakers to 18 points in the second half.
Purdue coach Matt Painter marveled at Maryland’s defensive performance, especially because of how young the Terps are collectively. Sophomore Darryl Morsell was the catalyst, especially in the second half.
After holding Edwards to just seven points in the second half and forcing the Big Ten’s leading scorer to miss 11 of 13 shots, Morsell was asked if this was the best game of his career defensively.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was locked in. He had 17 in the first half, so I kind of took it personal.”
Maryland and Morsell will certainly have their challenges the next two games on the road, when the Terps play at No. 6 Michigan Saturday and at No. 21 Iowa next Tuesday.
If Turgeon’s team can stay focused on getting through ball screens and not allowing too many open 3s — especially against the Hawkeyes and Jordan Bohannon — it has a chance to win both games.
3. Suddenly, the Big Ten race looks interesting — and wide open.
Had Maryland lost Tuesday night, it seemed unlikely that the Terps could get one of the top four spots in the Big Ten standings and a much coveted double-bye in next month’s Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
Because Maryland won and the Wolverines lost at Penn State, the Terps now find themselves at 10-4 in the league, just a half game behind Purdue (10-3) and a game behind both Michigan and Michigan State (11-3).
Maryland is also only a game ahead of fifth-place Wisconsin. Despite the fact that the teams split their regular season games, the Badgers hold the tiebreaker because of their win over Michigan last month.
The Terps have the most difficult schedule of any of the teams left in contention, with two games left against the Wolverines and road trips to Ann Arbor as well as Iowa City and State College (where Maryland has lost the last two times).
Consider this about Saturday’s matchup at the Crisler Center, where the Terps will try to get Turgeon’s critics to stop talking about his 0-18 record against ranked teams on the road since coming to Maryland eight years ago.
A year ago, an unranked Maryland team lost to then-No. 23 Michigan when the Terps allowed the Wolverines to score with 1.2 seconds remaining after Kevin Huerter’s 3-pointer had seemingly completed a huge comeback.
Since its 17-0 start, Michigan has looked at least vulnerable. While the Wolverines have yet to lose at home, the Terps are a much better team, especially on the road, than they were a year ago.
A win Saturday could go a long way for Maryland securing a top four spot in the Big Ten, and while winning the league still seems like a long shot, it certainly should make the next few weeks even more interesting.