COLLEGE PARK — As coach Kevin Willard opined, traveling might be a contributing factor to the Maryland men’s basketball team’s surprising struggles at home.
Not the type associated with turnovers, but the transit of players from road games within the Big Ten to Xfinity Center in College Park, where the Terps have already absorbed three losses — all in conference play — compared with a 16-1 record at home last winter that included a 10-0 record in the league.
“I’ve got to figure out a little better way to travel,” Willard said after Tuesday night’s 56-53 setback to visiting Rutgers. “I don’t know if it’s spending the night or leaving later. … I didn’t think we’d be that tired. But I think some of the travel has kind of worn us out a little bit.”
Maryland (13-10, 5-7 Big Ten) is 3-2 in home games after returning from contests against league opponents with losses to Michigan State on Jan. 21 and the Scarlet Knights. But even in those three wins, the team has had to overcome lethargic starts to defeat Penn State, 81-75, in overtime on Dec. 6, Michigan, 64-57, on Jan. 11, and Nebraska, 73-51, on Jan. 27.
At least for the immediate future, the Terps have two more instances in the regular season of returning from a Big Ten road game for a conference home matchup. After visiting Ohio State on Saturday, they welcome Iowa on Wednesday, and after facing Rutgers again Feb. 25, they host Northwestern on Feb. 28.
Here are three observations from Tuesday night’s game.
Maryland ran into a better defense than its own
As uneven as this season has been, the Terps could lean on the top defense in the Big Ten at 63 points allowed per game. They found out Tuesday how it feels to face an equally stingy defense.
Rutgers (12-10, 4-7) brandished the third-best defense in the conference (65.4 points allowed) to limit Maryland to its season-worst-tying total against league opponents. And the Scarlet Knights did so despite strong showings from junior power forward Julian Reese (19 points, 12 rebounds) and fifth-year senior point guard Jahmir Young (16 points, 12 rebounds), who became the first pair of Terps teammates to compile double-doubles in the same game since Jalen Smith and Donta Scott on Feb. 11, 2020.
Rutgers forced Maryland into shooting Big Ten season lows from the field (31.5% on 17 of 54) and 3-point range (11.1% on 2 of 18). The offense was mired in droughts of 4:05 and 5:39 in the first half and 2:13, 2:25 and 3:28 in the second half.
“We’ve been shooting the ball well recently. I think it was their defense,” Young said of the offense’s troubles. “So I think maybe rushing shots or shooting shots, shooting tough ones was the big thing.”
Willard noted that the Scarlet Knights lagged off of senior small forward Jordan Geronimo (two points on 1 of 4 shooting) to contain his teammates. Future opponents might employ a similar strategy, but Willard’s more pressing objective is trying to squeeze more production out of an underwhelming unit.
“I’m a little perplexed that we would come out [flat] at home,” he said. “And we have some older guys that, not that they weren’t ready to play — again defensively, they gave great effort. It’s just offensively, we were so lackadaisical on the offensive end. They’re really playing hard on the defensive end. I think we’re almost a little casual on the offensive end, which really hurts us.”
Rutgers kept Jahmir Young from going nuclear
On paper, Young’s second double-double of the season and ninth of his career seems eye-opening, especially after remembering that the 6-foot-1, 185-pound guard tied Reese for game-high honors in rebounds with 12.
But a closer inspection reveals that Young slogged through a tough outing. He connected on only 3 of 17 shots. Although he provided Maryland’s only two 3-pointers and went 8-for-8 at the free throw line, he also tied Reese for a game-worst five turnovers while dishing out only three assists.
Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell acknowledged sending freshman point guard Jamichael Davis, sophomore shooting guard Derek Simpson, fifth-year senior point guard Noah Fernandes and redshirt junior shooting guard Jeremiah Williams at Young, who credited Rutgers with making things difficult.
“One of the best defensive teams in the conference,” Young said. “They were just heavy in the gaps. There was nowhere to really drive. They just have really talented defenders, and they did a good job on me tonight.”
Young became the third-fastest player in school history to reach the 1,000-point milestone, doing so in his 57th game as a Terp. The only players who were faster were Tom McMillen in 48 games and Joe Smith in 52, but that was of little consolation to Young, who said the loss overshadowed any personal accomplishment.
Willard wasn’t going to pile on Young.
“It’s tough to really critique anything that he’s done, but he has struggled a little bit at home,” he said. “He’s been phenomenal on the road, and he’s struggled a little bit at home. We missed some shots early, and he’s one of those kids that is going to try to correct things. … He tried to force things a little bit too much. In our losses, when we’ve struggled to get off to good starts, he’s kind of struggled because he’s tried to push the tempo a little bit. But it’s not negative. He’s trying.”
Rutgers had its own superhero in Jeremiah Williams
In his first game since sitting out 20 games for violating the NCAA’s policy on gambling, Williams compiled 10 points, six rebounds and two assists in Saturday’s 69-59 victory at Michigan. The Iowa State transfer was even better against Maryland on Tuesday.
The 6-foot-4, 177-pound Williams racked up 14 points and five rebounds. He was particularly effective in the second half when he scored nine points.
Williams’ most important basket occurred when he took Young down the lane and dropped in a layup just before the shot clock expired to give the Scarlet Knights a 54-51 lead with 34 seconds left. Willard said the Terps didn’t do enough to prevent Williams from making that shot.
“We let him drive right down the lane and score a layup,” Willard said. “I think that was a major breakdown. He also hit a tough stepback 3 and had a great pass on the backdoor. The last play, we defended really well, but you can’t let a guy that’s shooting 28% drive right down the lane and get a layup. So that was a major breakdown.”
It’s fair to wonder if Rutgers would have won if the U.S. District Court of New Jersey hadn’t granted an injunction Friday that allowed Williams to suit up against Michigan and now Maryland. That, however, is not something that needs to concern Pikiell, who said Williams brings “personality” to the Scarlet Knights.
“Glad to have him back obviously,” he said. “Made some huge plays for us down the stretch. He adds a lot. He’s mature, but he loves basketball, and you see that every day in practice. He practices the right way. He’s a big help.”
Maryland at Ohio State
Saturday, 4 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: 105.7 FM