Nebraska’s run to the postseason rolls on Tuesday night as the Huskers host the Maryland Terrapins (17-10, 6-8), who got off to a strong start but have lost seven of their last 11 games.
Nebraska (19-8, 10-4) has Maryland (60 RPI, 39 KenPom), at Illinois (181 RPI, 112 KenPom), Indiana (106 RPI, 76 KenPom) and Penn State (84 RPI, 41 KenPom) remaining on its schedule.
“These are all going to be very, very important games and they could really boost our résumé too,” Coach Tim Miles said. “You never know what the back door [into the NCAA Tournament] is going to look like. Michigan could end up being a Q1 win and so could Northwestern. You never know how those things are going to fill in the blanks.”
Nebraska’ opened as the favorite, but despite numerous injuries the Terps are still a dangerous team. Maryland only has four players who have appeared in every game.
“Maryland’s an impressive team,” Miles said. “First of all, we’re the underdog. You look at all the metrics and they’re a higher-ranked team in a lot of different places than we are, so we’re going to be up against it. I know Mark [Turgeon] has played a very difficult schedule this year and I think you look at their talent — they’ve had some injuries up on the front line that have hurt them — but you look at their talent and it’s real. Maryland’s still really, really good even though they’ve got some guys that aren’t with them.”
Maryland’s attack starts on the perimeter with dynamic sophomore guards Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter. Cowan averages 16.2 points, 5.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 38.9 percent from 3 while Heurter adds 14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 44.1 percent from deep.
“You look at Anthony Cowan, he’s electric, quick, really a do-it-all guard,” Miles said. “Kevin Huerter, a do-it-all 6-7 two-guard; he can pass it, he shoots it, he can post up, he offensive rebounds, he’s great in transition, off screen-and-roll.”
The other two players who have not missed a game this season are a pair of freshmen in center Bruno Fernando (9.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game) and guard Darryl Morsell (9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game).
They’ve got some really young guys that have done well with Bruno Fernando up on the front line, Darryl Morsell — when he’s good they’ve been really good,” Miles said.
The Terps did get 7-foot-1 senior Michael Cekovsky back for their 73-57 win against Northwestern on Saturday after he had missed the previous two games. On the season, Cekovsky is averaging 7.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in just over 18 minutes per game.
“And then of course Michael Cekovsky’s back; with him being back, that’s really important to them and will really help them,” Miles said. “So it’s a very important ball game. I don’t believe in must-win games, but we know this time of year when you’re on the bubble it’s either you have to win or you can’t afford to lose, so what’s the difference, right? That’s just the way it is. We have to play as well as we can and put ourselves in position to win.”
Even with Cekovsky back in the lineup, the Huskers still have an edge in terms of depth. Guards Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens both average 5.6 points per game, but Maryland’s next two contributors (Joshua Tomaic and Sean Obi) average a combined 4.2 points and 15.8 minutes per game, about the same as sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga by himself. Tshimanga put in eight points in 15 minutes while senior Duby Okeke blocked four shots, grabbed four boards and knocked down two free throws in six minutes.
“I thought that Jordy coming off the bench and doing very well, Duby Okeke coming in and making a clear impact on the game in just a short amount of time but a critical amount of time,” Miles said. “It was six minutes that we were in foul trouble, kind of listing, not doing the right things; all of a sudden he came in and defensively we separated because he made so many blocked shots. That was an important time. Our depth is going to be really important down the stretch run.”
The underdog mindset Miles mentioned is something the Huskers have used all season long after being projected to finish 13th in the Big Ten before the season.
“I think we’ve looked at every game this year as the underdog,” senior guard Anton Gill said. “We’ve known the talent that we’ve had, but we necessarily haven’t gotten that respect yet. Losing this game does more bad to us than winning it does [good], so we’re approaching every game basically like it’s a tournament game, like it’s a must-win. If you want to get to where you want to get to, you’ve got to win it.”
Underdog or not, Nebraska has put itself in the discussion for an at-large bid if it continues to take care of business.
“It’s really fun,” Gill said. “I feel like this is what we all came here for, all the transfers and even the younger guys like Tom [Allen] and all them. This is what the goal was, to be playing in March and be playing for something bigger than just the regular season is huge. We’re all excited.”
Tipoff for Tuesday’s game is set for 6 p.m. on BTN with Kevin Kugler and Robbie Hummel on the call.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.