Feature photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.
Through 22 games, the Terps are yet to face a ranked opponent.
When the ball is tipped between No. 17 Maryland and No. 23 Purdue at Xfinity Center Saturday at noon, that will change.
Mark Turgeon isn’t making much of it, though. When asked about how he is treating his team’s first game against a ranked foe, he was confused.
“Oklahoma State wasn’t ranked when we played them?” Turgeon asked, referring to Maryland’s 71-70 win over the Cowboys on Dec. 3.
The answer to Turgeon’s question is no, but the question was itself an answer: Turgeon doesn’t focus on rankings, and he doesn’t want his team to, either.
“I feel like every opponent is the same,” Justin Jackson said. “You have to come out with the same energy, the same effort, the same mindset. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing.”
Michal Cekovsky echoed Jackson’s point.
“It’s going to be just another game, and we have to play our game,” he said.
The team might not be paying attention, but fans are. The game will be a red out, and the players are ready for a rowdy atmosphere.
“I expect it to be crazy,” Jackson said. “Red is my favorite color. That may help a little bit.”
It may also help to return home. Five of Maryland’s last seven games have been on the road. This game will be the Terps’ first in Xfinity since Jan. 24 against Rutgers and fourth of 2017.
“It’s always a great feeling playing in front of your home crowd,” Jackson said. “The energy you get from this building is amazing.”
The crowd will want to see a win, which will be a tough task against Purdue. The Boilermakers present some difficulties with size and perimeter shooting creating a pick-your-poison scenario for the defense. This balance has helped Purdue average the second-most points per game in the Big Ten at 82.6 and second in field-goal percentage at 49.1 percent.
The leader of the charge is forward Caleb Swanigan. The sophomore is averaging 18.8 points per game, second-most in the conference, and complements those points with 12.9 rebounds per contest.
For as much of a load as the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan is inside, the development of his outside game makes him that much harder to deal with. He’s taking 2.1 3-pointers per game, the same as last season. The difference is, now he makes 50 percent of them instead of 29.2 percent.
“That creates problems right there that you have to get out and guard him,” Turgeon said. “Then on the low post when he’s in at the four, for us it could be a tough matchup.”
Jackson will likely be one of many Terps asked to contain Swanigan. He knows it will be tough, but he has to welcome the test.
“I’ve seen his highlights all over TV,” the freshman forward said. “Like Coach (Dustin) Clark always says, you just have to take on the challenge and be ready.”
Along with Swanigan, Purdue also boasts 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas, the team’s second-leading scorer. Purdue’s size is something most teams struggle to handle. Cekovsky said Maryland has the size to match them, though.
“Obviously everybody knows they’re a big team, but we’re also a big team,” he explained. “We have Damonte [Dodd], me, Ivan [Bender], Justin [Jackson] is pretty big with his length.”
Cekovsky could be useful in combatting Purdue’s inside game, but the junior center has been dealing with lingering injuries and played limited minutes in the team’s last three games. He may get his chance to remake his mark Saturday.
Turgeon won’t rush anything, though.
“We’ll see if we need him a lot. You have to play the game,” Turgeon said. “We’re trying not to bring him back too fast. There’s a lot of basketball left. We’re halfway through the league. We’re just trying to bring him along so he can stay healthy the rest of the season.”
Cekovsky scored well before his ankle injury kept his out of Maryland’s first six conference game, but that’s not what matters to him. He wants to do whatever he can for his team.
“I don’t think it’s about points,” Cekovsky said. “I just want to help the team and be part of something special like what we started this year.”