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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, December 06, 2018 6:40 pm

Pregame: Purdue (5-3, 0-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 23 Maryland (7-1, 1-0)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

WEST LAFAYETTE – Mackey Arena was one of the most difficult places to play in college basketball last season. Purdue ran through its home schedule with ease, going 16-1 and suffering its only loss by a point against Ohio State. The Boilermakers won high-profile games against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin at Mackey in front of packed crowds.

The Boilers will get their first chance this season to replicate that electric atmosphere when they take on No. 23 Maryland tonight. Purdue is 3-0 at home this season, but none of the games have been particularly difficult. Maryland, which comes in 7-1 with its only loss against No. 4 Virginia, is a different story and will test the Boilermakers on their home court for the first time.

This isn't a must-win game for Purdue's NCAA Tournament hopes – few games in early December are – but if the Boilermakers want to be a factor in the Big Ten race, this is a key game. Falling to 0-2 in conference play would give Purdue a large hill to climb when league games start again next month. A loss would also drop the Boilers to 5-4 overall and 0-4 against ranked opponents, not an ideal start after one of the best seasons in school history last year.

To come out with a win tonight, Purdue will need to find some way to neutralize Maryland's talented pair of 6-foot-10 big men, sophomore Bruno Fernando and freshman Jalen Smith. Matt Haarms will have to be strong on defense and a scoring threat on offense, while power forwards Grady Eifert – a former Bishop Dwenger star – and Aaron Wheeler will have to hold their own despite giving up some size. Evan Boudreaux could be the x-factor, drawing either Smith or Fernando away from the rim on offense and opening up lanes for Carsen Edwards to drive. If Maryland can sink back in the paint, Edwards will be hard-pressed to find good shots against all that size, even if he beats his man off the dribble. Against a team like Maryland is where the loss of Isaac Haas really hurts because he could get a good shot whenever he wanted in the post.

Edwards' decision-making will be important tonight, as well. He's averaging five turnovers per game over Purdue's last five contests and coach Matt Painter wants him to let the game come to him a little bit more. The Boilers ask him to do so much on offense that it's understandable he'll make some mistakes, but with Maryland's perimeter defenders keying on him, smart passes could get the Boilermaker shooters open looks. He'll still probably need to score 20-plus for Purdue to win, but it'll have to be in the flow of the game.

This is something of a "prove-it" game for the Boilermakers. They've been ranked most of the season on the strength of last year's 30-win team, but this is a different group and it hasn't beaten anyone of note yet. With games against Texas and Notre Dame looming, breaking this two-game losing streak now would be ideal. Will Maryland's freshmen be intimidated by the Mackey atmosphere? We're about to find out.

dsinn@jg.net