PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Playing on the road has not been easy for Maryland since it joined the Big Ten for the 2014-15 season.
In their first year, when the Terps finished second behind Wisconsin and were the league’s biggest surprise, all four of their league losses came away from College Park, including three by a combined 59 points.
In their second year, when Maryland came into the season ranked No. 3 in the country, the Terps won their first two road games and four of their first six before dropping their last three, including against a Minnesota team that had yet to win a game.
Two years ago, Maryland seemed to get over the psychological hump of playing on the road when the Terps won their first five and finished 7-2, but transferred some of those past road woes to Xfinity Center, when they were a pedestrian 5-4.
And then came last season, when Maryland won its first and last road games — albeit against an Illinois team that handed the Terps an overtime win and a Northwestern team that had imploded — while losing the other seven.
So after his team lost at Purdue in its road opener December, coach Mark Turgeon certainly had some trepidation for what might happen at Rutgers. Those fears were quickly allayed during a 16-0 run that helped give the Terps a 21-point halftime lead.
Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s 77-63 win:
1. Maryland didn’t shoot lights out on 3s, but those they made seemed to be daggers.
The Terps shot 7 of 20 (35 percent) on 3-pointers, which is right around their season average (34.6). Though that might not be a clear indication that Turgeon’s team is improving in what has been a source of concern this season, it is.
For one, a couple of those made 3s came when sophomore center Bruno Fernando passed out of double teams, as evidenced by his career-tying five assists. A few were the result of the Terps making the extra pass.
And one, by freshman guard Eric Ayala, came when Rutgers had quickly cut its 21-point halftime deficit to 15 and Turgeon called timeout. The Scarlet Knights went to a zone for the first time all afternoon, and Ayala buried a 3 from the top of the key.
What was important about that score was that it came out of a timeout — something the Terps have struggled to do throughout Turgeon’s tenure — and it came against a zone, which nearly every opponent has used against Maryland this season.
The way teams are double- and triple-teaming Fernando, his ability to pass out of them and get the ball to shooters as well as Maryland’s ability to more consistently knock down 3s will be vital to the team’s success this season.
2. Maryland’s bench is becoming a factor.
Turgeon’s decision to pull both Fernando and junior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. after the Scarlet Knights went on an 11-2 run to erase what had been a 4-0 lead for the Terps appeared to be the coach sending a message to his two leaders.
Fernando had committed an early foul and Cowan’s overdribbling on one possession had led to a rushed air ball by Jalen Smith. Turgeon insisted that he thought both players were tired — after three minutes — and needed a break.
Whatever the reason, the decision proved beneficial as both played well after they returned and Turgeon got his bench engaged earlier than normal. It all factored in Maryland’s big first-half run and ultimately in the team’s easy road win.
All of Maryland’s bench players, three of them freshmen, made contributions.
Shooting guard Serrel Smith Jr. had his best game of the season, finishing with 11 points in 21 minutes, to go along with two steals. After a slow start, wing Aaron Wiggins wound up with seven points and four rebounds in 18 minutes.
Though forwards Ricky Lindo and Ivan Bender, the team’s only scholarship senior, didn’t do much offensively — Lindo had three points and Bender went scoreless — each pulled down six rebounds in their respective 13-minute stints.
Turgeon talked before and after the game about the importance of his team’s ability to build depth in order to finish games better than they have the past couple of years. Keeping players like Cowan and Fernando fresh for crunch time will be a key.
3. Sellout at the RAC should be a red flag for Maryland.
In their team’s first two trips to Rutgers, Terp fans seemed to outnumber, or at least out-voice, those of the Scarlet Knights. That certainly wasn’t the case Saturday, when Maryland fans were barely audible until the end of a blowout win.
It might be a reflection of where the two fan bases are right now.
Rutgers is in the third year under coach Steve Pikiell and though there are no obvious signs of a turnaround, there is still hope. Maryland is in its eighth season under Turgeon, and the fan base has evaporated noticeably the past two years.
It’s one thing for fans at Illinois or Iowa to show up on a rainy, cold Saturday in January to watch their team when it’s struggling, but Rutgers is not exactly an easy place to get to even on a weekend afternoon.
There was no student presence at the RAC on Saturday, even though they were given extra tickets to bring friends during winter break. It was mostly fans trying to support a team and give it a homecourt advantage.
That’s something Maryland fans haven’t done for awhile, as evidenced by the fact that there was just one announced sellout last season and last week’s Nebraska game drew an announced 11,251, an all-time low for a Big Ten home game for the Terps.
The sad part is that this year’s team probably works harder than nearly any team Turgeon has coached, and has a tremendous upside with a bunch of freshmen who continue to grow, including a potential future NBA lottery pick in Jalen Smith.
Rutgers might not sustain its following if the Scarlet Knights continue to lose the way they did against Maryland, but Maryland might not win back its fan base until it proves that it can once again beat the Big Ten’s elite.
And perhaps not even then.