Penn State at No. 24 Maryland Preview: Rejuvenated Nittany Lions Open Big Ten Play

By Chad Markulics on December 1, 2018 at 8:15 am
Anthony Cowan

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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Maryland Terrapins
No. 24 Maryland Terrapins
6-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
5:00 p.m. ET – Sat, Dec 1
XFINITY CENTER
College Park, MD
Watch Info: BTN/BTN2GoGAMETRACKER
KenPom Rank: 34
KenPom Line: Maryland -4.5

Tuesday's win over No. 13 Virginia Tech gave Penn State hope. It was simultaneously an NCAA résumé building block and proof of concept that the Nittany Lions are capable of defending at an elite level. Hopefully for Pat Chambers, it was also the coming out party for Myreon Jones as a dependable scorer and shooter off the bench for a team that sometimes lacks for both.

In any case, Saturday's trip to Maryland will present a whole new can of worms. While the Hokies were a perimeter-dominated unit, centered around outstanding guards Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Terps showcase two of the conference's premier big men in Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith. Last year's Maryland squad centered around its perimeter threats and merely featured Fernando, this year's iteration focuses on the physicality and winning the battle in the paint. Had Mike Watkins not been able to return yet, this game was shaping up to be a rare blowout considering the series' recent history. But Watkins is back, and the Nittany Lions should not be quite so simple to put away.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Maryland
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Soph. 1 Anthony Cowan - 6'0" - Jr.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - Fr. 2 Eric Ayala - 6'5" - Fr.
Josh Reaves - 6'5" - Sr. 3 Darryl Morsell - 6'5" - Soph.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Jr. 4 Jalen Smith - 6'10" - Fr.
John Harrar - 6'8" - Soph. 5 Bruno Fernando - 6'10" - Soph.

Watkins is not 100% in terms of game conditioning yet, so John Harrar looks set to get his 15th consecutive start.

Scouting Report

For such a young squad, Maryland did very well to put up 71 points (1.18 per possession) against a Virginia team that consistently ranks in the top five nationally in defensive efficiency. It wasn't a barrage of three balls either - the Terps shot 20-33 from inside the arc. Had they turned Virginia over more than twice, Maryland might've been celebrating a real victory instead of a moral victory on Wednesday night.

Fernando and Smith will start together, though they will trade off shifts as the game wears on. Fernando, who returned to school after averaging 10.3 points per game as a freshman, has been a force of nature as a sophomore. He's shooting 78.3 percent inside the arc and blocking a shot on nearly 10 percent of his defensive possessions. It's looking more and more that he made the right call to return to school and improve his draft stock. Smith doesn't have the shot-blocking prowess of Fernando just yet but he's been nearly as impressive on offense, averaging 12.1 points per game on 60 percent shooting on twos. His agility and length at 6'10" however will present a defensive challenge that Lamar Stevens has yet to face this season.

On the perimeter, Anthony Cowan is back for his junior season and continuing to do Anthony Cowan things - mainly, converting on an absurd percentage of his shots at the rim standing 6'0" on a good day. His three-point shot has yet to come around this year at 28%, but he's around a 35 percent shooter for his career and capable of filling it up. Freshmen Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins also bring playmaking to the table, the latter in the form of a deadly jumpshot.

Keys to the game

Virginia Tech and Maryland are inverses of each other in many ways. VT operated outside to inside and took a lot of threes; the Terps will look to throw the ball inside to their star bigs and operate from there. Mark Turgeon's club was very effective passing out of double teams when necessary against Virginia's pack line defense. Chambers alluded that his team won't operate similarly to the Cavs when defending the post - Watkins, Harrar, Stevens and Trent Buttrick (if the stretch four is called upon for more than two minutes) will need to defend admirably if they are put on islands against Fernando and Smith.

Offensively for the Nittany Lions, the guards will have to pick up even more of the slack than they did against the Hokies. Perhaps a homecoming of sorts will be good for Myles Dread and his jumpshot, as he's in the midst of a 1-12 slump from beyond the arc. Obviously another repeat performance by Jones would be welcome, but he's now on scouting reports after his 18-point outburst on Tuesday.

Prediction

The home team has taken each of the last five meetings between these schools, and I don't expect that streak to stop this season. Had Watkins had more time to coalesce with this team I might think differently, but this is the toughest test he and the Penn State frontcourt will likely face all season. And as much as I believe in the backcourt's potential, I don't think they're quite ready to take over in a hostile road environment. Maryland 76 - Penn State 68.

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