Hoops on the Horizon: Big man on the College Park campus

WASHINGTON — Maryland made as major a statement as one can in early January with Wednesday’s 74-72 win over No. 24 Nebraska.

Under head coach Mark Turgeon, the Terps have long been accused of not running efficient offense in the final minutes of games, but for one night they delivered. Freshman phenom Jalen Smith (15 points, including the last seven of the night for the Terps) will do that. Sophomore Bruno Fernando has also been in the mix — the forward ranks fourth in the Big Ten in shooting percentage while averaging a double-double over the first 14 games of the season.

“I don’t know if there’s a player in the country that has improved as much as he has,” said Turgeon of Fernando. “Instead of just having (him) on that block the whole game, we’ve moved him away from the basket so he’s inside-out, and I think it’s really helped him.”

While Fernando is off to a strong start, so are the Terps (11-3, 2-1 Big Ten heading into the weekend). But they’ve gotten off to strong Big Ten starts before only to fade in February. The coach is confident in the strides his team has made this winter.

“I think we’ve made strides in our execution,” said Turgeon. “We’ve made strides in practice with getting a good shot and not turning the ball over as much.”

The Terps currently rank 13th in the Big Ten regarding turnover margin … so improvement will be needed. But with Fernando and Smith, the Terps have a nice base for their conference clashes.

Saturday’s games

No. 10 Virginia Tech (12-1, 1-0 ACC) at Boston College (9-3), noon, ACC Network

There are those old-school folks who still cringe when they hear this is an Atlantic Coast Conference game, but the Hokies currently stand all alone in the conference standings thanks to the fact that they beat Notre Dame 81-66 Jan. 1 … and nobody else in the league has played a game. BC boasts high-scoring guard Ky Bowman, who just scored 44 points in a home loss to Hartford. Unfortunately, you’ve read that correctly: the Eagles lost to Hartford at home.

Georgetown (11-3, 1-0 Big East) vs St. John’s (13-1, 1-1), 1 p.m., CBS

Now this smacks of Big East basketball as nature intended: Ewing vs. Mullin in a matinee on CBS. Ewing’s proxy, senior center Jessie Govan, has four double-doubles so far this winter while Mullin’s star guard Shamorie Ponds averaged 25 points while shooting 50 percent in three games against Georgetown last year. Hoyas freshman Mac McClung is a question mark with a sprained ankle, missing two straight games after scoring a career high 38 points against Little Rock Dec. 22.

Maryland (11-3, 2-1 Big Ten) at Rutgers (7-5, 0-2), 2 p.m., BTN

Beating a conference foe at home is one thing, but last winter the Terps went 2-7 on the road in league play. The Scarlet Knights may be winless in the Big Ten, but in their two games they led a ranked Wisconsin at the half before losing by five and were within two points of conference favorite Michigan State at intermission. Junior forward Eugene Omoruyi is enjoying a breakout season while leading Rutgers with 16 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, but even with seven-foot center/caddy Shaquille Doorson alongside, he’ll be hard-pressed to match the Terps 1-2 inside punch of Fernando and Smith.

VCU (9-4) at Fordham (9-4), 2 p.m., ESPN+

You know, it’s nice to have a league that waits until January to start conference play. It almost makes me forgive the Atlantic 10 for having 14 schools … three of which call themselves the Rams. But not all Rams are alike: while VCU has been an NCAA Tournament fixture this century, Fordham has posted just a pair of winning seasons since 2000. Don’t be surprised to see a rock-fight — these two schools rank first and second in defensive field goal percentage as well as stopping the three.

No. 1 Virginia (12-0) vs. No. 9 Florida State (12-1), 3 p.m., ESPN2

A Top 10 showdown in Charlottesville is the ACC’s first marquee matchup of the regular season. The Cavaliers rank No. 1 in the ACC in scoring defense as well as defending the three-pointer, while the Seminoles are second to last in assist-to-turnover ratio. Can Leonard Hamilton’s team set a pace to make the number one team in the nation uncomfortable? Welcome to the meatgrinder that will be the Atlantic Coast Conference for the next two months.

Howard (6-8) vs Florida A&M (3-12), 4 p.m.

The Bison are more than happy to be back at Burr Gymnasium — this isn’t just their first home game since Dec. 8, but coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team is 4-0 on campus. Neither team enters 2019 on a roll. Howard has five straight losses, while the Rattlers have dropped 12 of 13, nine by double-digits. With recent injuries, the Bison have had to revamp a rotation that relies heavily on the scoring of RJ Cole and Charles Williams. A shootout favors the home team: A&M is the eighth-lowest scoring team in Division I.

Sunday’s games

George Washington (4-9) at St. Joseph’s (7-6, 0-1 Atlantic 10), 2 p.m., NBCSN

The Hawks lost their conference opener Thursday evening by 25 at home to George Mason, but leading scorer Charlie Brown Jr. remains a matchup nightmare, as the 6-foot-7 sophomore shoots 48 percent from three-point range. While the Colonials are the lowest-scoring team in the A-10 and rank last in rebounding margin, they have won three of five.

American (7-5, 1-0 Patriot League) at Colgate (8-6, 0-1), 2 p.m.

The Eagles have already surpassed last year’s win total thanks to their conference-opening victory Wednesday over Boston University. AU shot 61 percent against the Terriers, and while that won’t be the case every game they are the third-best shooting team in the conference. They’ll need to shoot well against a Raiders team that leads the Patriot League in rebounding, with Northwestern transfer Rapolas Ivanauskas and his 6-foot-10 frame looming rather large.

George Mason (7-7, 1-0 Atlantic 10) vs. St. Bonaventure (4-9), 4 p.m., NBCSN.

The Patriots were picked to finish fourth in the preseason conference poll and showed contender mettle with an 85-60 rout of St. Joseph’s Thursday evening, shooting 15 of 28 from three-point range. The Bonnies bring a four-game losing streak into conference play but have gotten a nice shot in the arm from UNLV transfer Jalen Poyser (14 points per game). Doc Nix and the Green Machine will be ready at Eagle Bank Arena.

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