WEST LAFAYETTE – Merry Christmas to all of the basketball fans out there!
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Big Ten discouraged its players and coaches from traveling to visit their families over the holidays. To give the players something to look forward to instead of just practice, the conference then scheduled a slate of Christmas Day games. That means basketball at Mackey Arena this afternoon, where Purdue will take on Maryland, one of four Big Ten games to take place today. This will be the first time the Boilermakers have ever played on Christmas Day.
Although the game is more of a gift to the players and coaches for committing to safety protocols this season, it still counts in the standings and on NCAA Tournament resumes. Purdue is coming off a 70-55 loss to No. 4 Iowa and would certainly like to find a bounce-back victory under its tree. The Boilermakers felt like they let one get away against the Hawkeyes as they turned the ball over 14 times, shot only 40% from the field (they missed their last five shots in a row) and attempted only three free throws to 14 for Iowa. The disappointing offensive performance spoiled a solid defensive effort against one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
The biggest key for Purdue against the Terrapins today will be taking care of the ball. Maryland doesn't force many turnovers – it is 317th nationally, taking the ball away only 11.6 times per game – and if the Boilermakers can't avoid miscues today, it could bode ill for the rest of the Big Ten season. Many of Purdue's turnovers against the Hawkeyes were of the live-ball variety and a large chunk of those came because of simple bad decisions, rather than anything special Iowa was doing defensively. Those can be fixed relatively easily, but it will require focus for 40 minutes.
Maryland is a different team than you might remember in years past. In each of the last three seasons, the Terps ran their offense through a dominant big man, either Bruno Fernando, Jalen Smith or both. This year, Smith and Fernando are on NBA rosters and Maryland has rebuilt around a bevy of long, athletic wings. Eric Ayala, Donta Scott, Hakim Hart, Aaron Wiggins, Jairus Hamilton and Darryl Morsell are all between 6-foot-5 and 6-9 and all average at least 7.9 points. Scott is shooting 66% from the field and 57% from 3-point range. This is a team that presents matchup problems at several positions, but it is also undersized and could be bullied at least a little down low if Trevion Williams and Zach Edey can avoid foul trouble (sound familiar?).
If Maryland decides to double the Boilermaker big men when they catch the ball in the post, Purdue will have to shoot better from the outside than it did against Iowa, when it was just 8 for 25 from 3-point range. Sasha Stefanovic has been terrific this season, but he was only 2 for 6 from beyond the arc in that game, despite plenty of open looks. He loves shooting at Mackey Arena, so he could be in for a big game.
Although few might remember it because of the way the season ended, Maryland is the defending Big Ten champion. The Terrapins went 14-6 last season in conference play and although this is an entirely different roster and a different season, it would be something for Purdue to take down the conference champs and get back above .500 in conference play in one fell swoop. It's also an important game with more difficult matchups against Rutgers and Illinois coming up next.
Enjoy the Yuletide hoops.