Know Thy Enemy: Underclassmen leading Terrapins to recent success
Big Ten play is back for the No. 1 ranked men's basketball team, and it couldn't come soon enough.
The Spartans return to conference play Thursday night against the 13-3 Maryland Terrapins, looking to extend their win streak to 14 games.
The State News caught up with Kyle Melnick, the sports editor and men's basketball beat reporter for The Diamondback, and asked him a few questions ahead of the matchup.
Q: Melo Trimble, the leading scorer for the Terps the past three seasons, graduated and moved on after last year but the team is currently tied for fourth place in the Big Ten at 13-3 and have won seven straight. They were unranked in both the preseason AP and USA Today Coaches poll. So have they already exceeded expectations thus far? If yes, how have they done it?
A: Maryland has met expectations so far. Fans expected Maryland's sophomore trio — Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson — to replace most of Trimble's production. The main reason Maryland hasn't exceeded expectations is because of Jackson's torn labrum that will keep him out the rest of the year. But the biggest factor toward Maryland's success is the improvement of Cowan, who played behind Trimble last season. Cowan averages 15.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while setting the tone for Maryland's offense. The Terps, who average a Big Ten-worst 15.8 turnovers per game, beat Butler in November for their lone win over a premier team, but they also lost to St. Bonaventure. January will be telling of whether Maryland is an NCAA tournament team.
Q: The Terps, just like the Spartans, are benefitting from improved play from their sophomores. Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter have increased their scoring averages by 5.3 and 4.8 points respectively. Huerter's shooting numbers in particular have skyrocketed. What's the driving force behind their improved play? Can they keep this up?
A: Cowan was a poor shooter last season, and while his speed helped him attack the basket, he wasn't crafty enough to create space past the free throw line, often getting blocked. Cowan improved his shot this offseason and is shooting 38.8 percent on threes, while he's also used new means to score around the basket, whether it be floaters or finishing through contact.
Huerter was just a piece of Maryland's offense last season while playing in the shadows of Trimble and Jackson, so he primarily remained on the perimeter. He's been more aggressive attacking the hoop this season, taking more efficient shots, getting to the free throw line and knocking down 47 percent of his treys. With Jackson sidelined for the rest of the season, I think Huerter and Cowan will continue their revamped play. The Terps will only make their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament if Cowan and Huerter keep up their production.
Q: On the flip side, Justin Jackson's shooting numbers have taken quite a dip this year. This probably was due to the torn labrum injury he tried to play through, which has now sidelined him indefinitely. How has the team been able to withstand this big loss? Are there any players in particular that have stepped up during his absence?
A: Forward Bruno Fernando has taken on the largest increased role in the two games Maryland has played without Jackson. Fernando recorded 17 points and 11 rebounds in Maryland's win over Penn State on Tuesday. The Terps are playing with bigger lineups at a slower pace with Jackson sidelined, and that's helped Fernando receive more chances to post-up. Jackson averaged 9.8 points, but the biggest areas the Terps need to replace his production are on defense and in rebounding. Jackson could guard almost any player with his 7-foot-3 wingspan, but now the Terps are forced at times to defend big men with their guards, which the Spartans will likely try to exploit. Jackson also led the team with 8.1 rebounds per game, production Fernando and center Michal Cekovsky have helped restore so far.
Q: What will be the x-factor for the Terps pulling out a win against the Spartans?
A: Bruno Fernando is Maryland's X-factor. The Spartans' frontcourt pairing of Miles Bridges and Nick Ward is the biggest challenge Maryland has faced this season. The Terps may hang around if Fernando limits that duo from scoring and records double digit points and rebounds himself.
Q: Final score prediction and why?
A: Michigan State is far superior to Maryland, with or without Jackson, this season. The Terps have a young and injury-depleted roster that may be one of the country's best next year, but the Spartans are national title contenders this season for a reason. Coach Mark Turgeon's squad, which will play its second game in three days, doesn't have the frontcourt depth to compete with the Spartans' size.
Michigan State wins, 80-63.