Maryland men’s basketball sophomore forward Jalen Smith’s double double streak has become routine for fans, teammates and coaches, but on Tuesday night, he almost placed his name next to a Maryland great.
He are three takeaways from No. 7 Maryland’s 76-67 win over Northwestern, its ninth straight victory.
Jalen Smith’s dominant play is leaving coach Mark Turgeon with no qualms about the team’s interior depth.
When freshman forward Donta Scott picked up his second foul less than five minutes into Tuesday’s game, it looked like circumstances would force Turgeon’s hand into finding minutes for some of his reserve big men.
Instead, Turgeon subbed in sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins, who has typically been the team’s first player off the bench, leaving Smith as the sole big with four guards on the floor.
Smith was more than capable of holding his own in the paint, dominating Northwestern inside. He had a game-high 22 points and a career-high 19 rebounds. He came one rebound shy of becoming the first Terp to have 20 rebounds in a game since Joe Smith did so against Texas in the 1995 NCAA tournament.
“I think everyone’s probably had enough of him,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who witnessed Smith put up a then-career-high 25 points in the teams’ first meeting, a 15-point comeback win for Maryland. “I really commend him. His body has gotten a lot better this year. Last year at times, his skill level was there and athleticism, but you were able to kind of get into his body a little bit and get him off-balance. He added strength, he added experience and maturity.
“What makes him so tough is his ability to play all over the court. He’s a guy that can pick-and-pop. They’re running plays for him to come off down screens for 3s. He can drive it. Obviously his length, you get six offensive rebounds and then he can score around the basket. There’s a reason why he’s going to play basketball for a long time and, health-willing, have a magnificent career. He’s a terrific player, and I’m a big fan of what he does.”
It’s no surprise that Maryland’s nine-game winning streak, its longest in conference play since joining the Big Ten, has coincided with Smith’s own double double streak, his best stretch of play at Maryland. More telling might be that Turgeon thinks his gifted big man has an even greater level he can tap into.
“He’s actually doing better than I imagined this year,” Turgeon said. “And even two months ago, in December, I wasn’t sure we could get to this so fast. ... We’re really working on when big guys are running at him, him driving the ball and making plays for himself, for other people. We’re still evolving. We can still get a lot better before the year is over and [Smith] is working at it. He wants to be great.”
Donta Scott made his mark despite foul trouble, and might be in line for a larger role down the stretch.
Scott looked to have the hot hand early on, scoring five of the Terps’ first eight points before picking up the second of what Turgeon called “silly fouls” at the 15:40 mark of the first half.
Scott played a little under 20 minutes, his lowest total since November, but was still able to affect the game. He recorded 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and played strong defense on Northwestern graduate transfer Pat Spencer (Boys’ Latin), who looked to take advantage of Maryland’s smaller guards in the second half.
Scott’s versatility and toughness inside have been key additions to Maryland this season after losing Bruno Fernando to the NBA and the Mitchell twins leaving the program. Turgeon said he has been particularly impressed with Scott’s offensive game. He added that he’s looking for more ways to get the Philadelphia native involved in the offense, a striking endorsement for a freshman surrounded by multiple bonafide scorers.
“I just had to find where I was comfortable at,” Scott said. “Now I’m starting to get my groove, I’m starting to find where I can make the game easy for myself. Every game, I’m getting better and better. Basically just knowing when to cut and just when to spot up and shoot and knowing how to use my shot fake and get to the basket, stuff like that.”
The Terps can begin to pull away in the Big Ten with five games remaining.
In the middle of Tuesday night’s game, the Xfinity Center crowd cheered at the sight of the big board, which showed Illinois had upset No. 9 Penn State on the road earlier in the night. Maryland’s win ensured the team would have a two-game lead in the Big Ten standings heading into Sunday’s road matchup with No. 25 Ohio State. After struggling to find consistency in the early portion of their Big Ten schedule, it’s not too early to talk about the Terps putting a bow on the regular-season title, despite a tough final five games.
After Saturday’s game in Columbus, Maryland plays at Minnesota, hosts Michigan State for a rematch of Saturday’s thriller, and heads to Rutgers, which is undefeated at home this season. The Terps then host Michigan for Senior Day and the regular-season finale.
The final stretch isn’t a cupcake by any means, but Maryland is rolling, and the Nittany Lions will be tested as well over their final games, with matchups against Rutgers, No. 20 Iowa and Michigan State looming.
Barring a shocking collapse, Maryland will likely secure a double-bye for the Big Ten tournament. Turgeon will keep his players’ focus on one game at a time, but his first regular-season conference title since becoming coach of the Terps is within reach.
No. 7 Maryland@No. 25 Ohio State
Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM