When Northwestern, then boasting a 10-9 overall record (1-5 in the Big Ten) went down to College Park last year to play the No. 13 Maryland Terrapins on Jan. 25 as conference foes for the first time, the Wildcats were in the midst of an of what became a 10-game losing streak and had already seen their once-promising season fall into the gutter.
For the vast majority of the game, Northwestern was the better team, holding an 11-point lead with just over four minutes to play and actually was up 67-66 during the final seconds of play. However, a Dez Wells fading putback at the buzzer after a missed Melo Trimble three, following the go-ahead Tre Demps jumper, gave the Terrapins a stunning win and helped them avoid a devastating loss. Meanwhile, it was a brutal sixth-straight loss for the Wildcats and fifth-consecutive defeat by seven-or-less points.
This season, Northwestern (15-4, 3-3 Big Ten) will look to get revenge for its tough beat on Tuesday night in College Park, when the Wildcats return to the Xfinity Center, the scene of the crime, to try and bounce back from a disappointing 71-62 home loss to Penn State on Saturday. Chris Collins' group reverted back to its usual problems over the weekend after back-to-back impressive wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Maryland (16-2, 5-1) is coming off one of its more dominant performances of the season, a 100-65 shellacking of Ohio State on Saturday in College Park. The Terrapins responded well after a surprising mid-week road loss to a Caris LeVert-less Michigan team, making over 62 percent of their shots from the field (11-of-21 from three-point range) to take an 18-point halftime lead and never look back. Forward Robert Carter led the way with a season-high 25 points while Rasheed Sulaimon contributed 22 points on just 10 shots.
Back on Jan. 2, when these two teams met in Evanston, it was a similar story for the Terrapins, who doubled Northwestern up 40-20 in the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena and cruised to a 72-59 win. Trimble (24 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) and Sulaimon (16 points on 4 of 6 three-point shooting) dominated Northwestern's backcourt of Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps as the Wildcats couldn't get much going on offense and, like in the Penn State loss, couldn't buy a three-pointer (they went 2-of-20 from deep).
One of the bigger teams in the country, Maryland (currently No. 14 in KenPom) boasts an average height of nearly 6-foot-6 which ranks second nationally and an effective height (which is a minutes-weighted height index per team featured on KenPom) of +5.0, the sixth-best mark in Division I. Clearly, Mark Turgeon's team has length and size throughout its roster, and has a frontcourt rotation with Damonte Dodd, Jake Layman, Carter, Diamond Stone and Michal Cekovsky that is unparalleled throughout college basketball.
With an ailing Alex Olah that didn't look too great on Saturday, Northwestern's main problem will be figuring out how to deal with Maryland's bigs, who are all extremely athletic and can score in a variety of ways. The effectiveness of those players is a big reason the Terrapins are No. 3 in the country in two-point field goal percentage, and No. 4 in effective field goal percentage (58.7).
But, this team is not one-dimensional, by any means. As Northwestern has seen in its last two matchups with Maryland, the Terrapins' backcourt duo (with Duke transfer Sulaimon essentially subbing in this year for the graduated Dez Wells) might be the best in the Big Ten.
Trimble, the stud sophomore, can either take over the game by driving to the rim at will and getting to the free throw line, by beating defenses from the perimeter, or by taking a step back and instead focusing on setting his teammates up. Sometimes, like in that first game in Evanston or in Maryland's nonconference loss to North Carolina (23 points and 12 assists), he does all three of those things simultaneously, which render him nearly impossible to stop.
But then, you add the sharpshooting Sulaimon (who has made half of his three-point attempts this season), rangy Layman, versatile Carter, tough Dodd, floor-stretching Jared Nickens, strong Stone and inexperienced but long Cekovsky to the mix, and you get a roster full on guys that, if need be, can help the scoring effort on the rare nights Trimble isn't at his best. This team is no Penn State, that's for sure.
Here are the three key matchups to watch for Tuesday's game:
1. Bryant McIntosh vs. Melo Trimble
McIntosh has done a pretty good job of holding his own against Trimble in the two prior meetings between the two, and Northwestern will need him to do so again if the Wildcats will have any chance of beating Maryland. Northwestern's sophomore floor leader actually outplayed Trimble for much of last year's meeting but he's going to have to play a near-flawless game to produce a similar result.
What's promising for Northwestern is that Trimble hasn't played too well lately, scoring eight or fewer points in three of Maryland's last four games, with the lone exception being his 21-point performance up in Madison against Wisconsin. But, the Maryland native has been prone to stretches of inconsistent shooting throughout his career and usually is able to figure it out at home. McIntosh and Trimble will both have their hands full.
2. Tre Demps vs. Rasheed Sulaimon
Seniors man the shooting guard spots for both teams, two players who have seen their 2015-16 seasons head in opposite directions. Demps is shooting just over 38 percent from the field this season (under 30 percent from three) and has struggled mightily to put the ball in the basket during conference play, as his troubling shot selection has reared its ugly head again. But, the more concerning matter is that he has missed a lot of wide-open jumpers as of late, which are shots he made last year and in nonconference play this year. Northwestern has missed his instant scoring ability.
On the other hand, Sulaimon, in his first season at Maryland (he played at Duke for three seasons, with one under Chris Collins as an assistant coach), has been everything Mark Turgeon could have wanted, and more. His efficiency has been remarkable — it's rare to see a guy take almost 20 percent of his team's shots when he's on the floor and make over 50 percent of both field goals and three-pointers specifically — and he is a lockdown perimeter defender. He had a big game in Evanston a few weeks ago and shut Demps down.
3. Alex Olah/Dererk Pardon/Joey van Zegeren vs. Damonte Dodd/Diamond Stone
Sure, you could add Michal Cekovsky into this, but his minutes have dropped precipitously as of late and the guys who get the lion's share of center minutes for Maryland are Dodd and Stone. It's going to be difficult for Northwestern's center trio (how much we'll see of Olah is uncertain) to keep the Terrapins' bigs off the glass and out of the scoring column. Dodd plays over 15 minutes a night but doesn't do much in the offense, mostly scoring off offensive rebounds or broken plays as Stone, who broke out with a monstrous 39-point, 12-rebound performance in a comeback win over Penn State, is the real go-to guy down low.
The freshman is a beast in the post and is surprisingly nifty for a 6-foot-11, 255-pound center which helps him finish creatively at the rim but also position himself well for rebounds (per KenPom, he's No. 13 in the country in offensive rebounding rate). Lately, he has also shown off an effective mid-range game, which diversifies his offensive game that much more. He certainly plays beyond his years and is about as refined as a freshman big is in college basketball right now.