The Maryland men’s basketball team didn’t have a lot of good news to end 2017.
Despite ending the year with a 66-45 win over UMBC, the Terps lost two of their key players — sophomore forward Justin Jackson and redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender — to injury. What’s more, the win over the Retrievers came after an ugly first half that had the Terps trailing for much of the game.
But Maryland has a chance to get a boost — both in production and in the Big Ten — when they host Penn State Tuesday night.
For Maryland (12-3, 1-1), December was a month of highs and lows. The team is currently on a six-game winning streak — its longest of the year — and it got its first conference win in dramatic fashion against Illinois.
Those positives have been overshadowed by recent blows to the Terps’ roster. Jackson was officially shut down for the remainder of the season after getting a second opinion on a torn right labrum he suffered against Ohio. Two days later, Bender — Jackson’s replacement in the starting lineup — tore his meniscus against UMBC and will sit out the remainder of the season.
Both these injuries come at an inopportune time, because Penn State, on paper, at least, is the most evenly matched team the Terps have faced all season.
Like the Terps, Penn State is 1-1 in Big Ten play with an 11-4 record overall. Also like the Terps, Penn State’s conference games have been close. The Nittany Lions hung on to beat Iowa 77-73, but lost to Wisconsin 64-63 in the following game.
But the real similarities between the two teams come in the season statistics. They’re nearly identical in several categories, including points — 78.1 for Maryland and 78.4 for Penn State; rebounds — 40.1 to 37.8; and assists — 15 to 14.9.
One of the biggest questions for Maryland is how they are going to handle Penn State’s size. The Nittany Lions have six players who are at least 6-foot-8, including 7-foot forward Satchel Piercea.
This is why the loss of Jackson and Bender are so critical. As a result, the Terps will likely have to play more small ball with Darryl Morsell, Jared Nickens and Joshua Tomaic getting more playing time.
Fortunately, Maryland also has some depth in its bigs, who should also get more minutes. The Terps will likely use this game to see what a bigger lineup will look like with players like Michal Cekovsky, Bruno Fernando and Sean Obi.
On paper, this is a game that can go either way. Both teams have played very similar up to this point in the season and a win tomorrow night for either team could change how the rest of the season unfolds.