Penn State vs. No. 17 Maryland: Resurgent Lions Host Talented Terps

By Chad Markulics on February 27, 2019 at 10:10 am
Feb 23, 2019; College Park, MD, USA; Maryland Terrapins guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (1) reacts after making a three point shot in the first half against the Ohio State Buckeyes at XFINITY Center.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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Maryland Terrapins
No. 17 Maryland Terrapins
21-7 (12-5 Big Ten)
ROSTER / SCHEDULE
6:30 p.m. ET – Wednesday, Feb 27
BRYCE JORDAN CENTER
State College, PA
Watch Info: BTN/BTN2GoGAMETRACKER
KenPom Rank: 15
Vegas Line: Maryland -1.5

Penn State is on a roll. Of course, it's too little too late unless they can make a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament and win the whole thing. But earning a single bye in the tournament can improve their chances. They'll need a win on Wednesday night to keep pace with Indiana and Nebraska on five conference wins as all three continue to climb to reach six-win Rutgers and Illinois.

That will be a tall task for the Nittany Lions as they welcome No. 17 Maryland to the Bryce Jordan Center for an early tip-off. The game takes place less than 24 hours after the BJC hosted Travis Scott's "Astroworld" tour, in a show which included two stages and amusement park rides. If you could find somewhere to place a bet on there being a clock malfunction or some other administrative chicanery happening during this game, you oughta bet the farm on it.

On the court, if the rides are cleared by then, the Terrapins present one of the toughest challenges in the conference. Fresh off a last-second win in Iowa City and a convincing home win over Ohio State, Maryland is playing its best basketball of the season, and has eyes on a double bye in Chicago. Driven by the twin towers of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, Mark Turgeon has his team in the top-25 nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency and heading towards a nice seed in the NCAA Tournament.

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.
Mike Watkins - 6'9" - RS Jr. 5 Bruno Fernando - 6'10" - Soph.

Mike Watkins made his return to the starting five after a three game cameo from John Harrar. Both will be needed to come up big against Fernando and Smith.

Scouting Report

We'll start in that frontcourt. You'd be hard pressed to find a handful of bigs better than Fernando in college basketball this season. Only Ethan Happ can stake a claim as a better collegiate center in the Big Ten. Fernando is averaging 14 and 10 boards on 65 percent shooting from the floor, and has become an outstanding passer out of the post since his freshman season. His offensive gravity creates plenty of space for freshmen sharpshooters Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, both shooting over 42% percent from three on the season.

Smith doesn't always play with Fernando, but when he does it's one hell of a mismatch for opponents to deal with. The good news for Penn State, if any can be found here, is that the freshman seems to be hitting a wall of late - "Stix" hasn't eclipsed double figures in any of the last three games and played just 14 minutes at Iowa. How much he plays - and how well he plays against Penn State's bigs - will be a key factor in tonight's matchup.

And then there's Anthony Cowan, who hit the stone-cold dagger from 25 feet to finish the game off in December. Cowan has been a frustrating figure at times for Terps fans, but he's put together three consistently good years at the point for Turgeon, so far culminating in a fantastic junior season in which he's averaging 16 points per contest to lead his team.

Maryland is one of the most balanced teams in the country - only seven other teams can claim top 25 offensive and defensive efficiency rankings in KenPom. Their defensive profile bears little resemblance to Penn State's, who create turnovers as a means to get stops. The Terps are 352nd nationally in defensive turnover rate, forcing one on just 14.4 percent of possessions (PSU forces turnovers on 20% of their defensive possessions). This Maryland defense sits back, conservatively jumps passing lanes, and forces opponents to find a good shot against a lanky frontcourt. This philosophy works well with two big-bodied shot blockers in Fernando and Smith, to the point that they are allowing only 45 percent shooting inside the arc. Penn State hasn't faced a defense like this since their upset over Michigan. It will be another barometer of how far the Nittany Lion offense has come.

Prediction

This fixture has always been close since Maryland joined the Big Ten - in fact, the seven-point Terps win in December represents the largest margin of victory in this game since it became a conference matchup in 2015. With Penn State getting its act together lately, it stands to reason tonight's game will be another tight one. Another fun fact - the home team has won each game in this series since 2016. Why break with tradition? Penn State 75, Maryland 71.

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