Everyone played a lot of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter as a kid, right? Good, then this should make sense. Each game had the mode where you played against a ladder of computer players, and the first five or six matches were a walk in the park. I played with Sub Zero, so I would just freeze someone, uppercut and repeat until the end of the level (then I’d button mash my way through a Fatality that usually ended with a devastating accidental leg sweep).

But eventually, you run into that first opponent who blocks your cheap combo- the first one where you really need to hunker down and figure out a creative way to win. Well, disregarding the Kentucky game, which may as well have happened last year at this point, Northwestern is that guy. One not propped up by a cheap offensive parlor trick or two, but with legitimate substance and depth capable of actually beating the Terps.

This game also represents Maryland’s first true road game. Welsh-Ryan Arena may not be the lion’s den or the Saarlac pit, but it’s the home of a 6-0 Big 10 basketball team, and it’s tougher to play than some ACC venues (I’m looking at your empty seats Boston College).

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the state of the Terps heading into this game, and what exactly they’ll be up against tonight in Evanston.

State of the Union:

My fellow Terrapins,

Maryland has played their first five games completely according to script. They made Kentucky sweat in Brooklyn before winning convincingly over a Charmin-soft next four games. Through these first five games, the Terps have shown some glowingly positive signs of good basketball.

The most impressive of which has been their dominance on the glass. They’re fourth in the country in rebounds per game (46.4), and the dominant effort in the Kentucky game means that number should stand up. The obvious culprits for this number are Len (8.2 RPG) and Mitchell (7.8 RPG), but what has made Maryland elite is their team-wide effort. Dez Wells (5.2) and Nick Faust (4.0) both crash effectively from their wing spots and even Pe’Shon (3.6) gets into the act. Obviously, Turgeon put a premium on hitting the boards this season (especially on offense where UMD also ranks 4th with 18.0 ORPG), and that message has stuck with this team.

A number that’s just impressive, albeit probably more temporary, is 19.4 assists per game (3rd in NCAA). This has been disproportionately due to Howard’s exceptional passing ability at the point. He’s averaging 7 assists per game against just 2.2 turnovers and has really shown mastery in that area of the position. But again, it’s the other guards helping to drive that number up that makes Maryland an elite passing team. Allen, Wells, and Faust are all averaging 2.5+ APG, helping to create a lot of open looks in the early going.

Now it’s time to bring everyone down a little bit with two worrying numbers. Turnovers are usually to be expected with a young team trying to find itself, but that doesn’t make them any easier to swallow. 15 turnovers per game is a higher number than last year’s team (13.3 in 2011), and one that could balloon once the ACC schedule hits and better defenses start coming to town. 20 turnovers against Morehead State?! Just imagine what that number would’ve been against a ball hawking D like Florida State.

And now, just like before every game, I’ll mention that Maryland has floundered from 3-point range (31.1 %, 237th in NCAA). Seth Allen and Logan Aronhalt have each had one great game to bolster their percentages, but outside of those two this team can’t hit the broadside of a barn. Aronhalt has hit on 7 of 11 this season, but unless something major has changed, he’s not the type of elite marksman who can continue that (36% combined in his last two years at Albany). I’m still waiting on Jake Layman to hopefully break out of his funk, but maybe that’s just not in the cards.

Let’s talk Wildcats:

What they do well:

Actually, a lot of what Maryland does well. They’re just a slot below Maryland in assists (19.3 per game), and tied with Morehead State as the best rebounding team on the schedule (40.2 – 57th in NCAA). What would worry me the most though is how well they shoot the deep ball.

There are four Wildcats who have shot at least 18 threes this season, and the worst shooter is Drew Crawford at 39.3%. Jared Swopshire (44.4%) and Dave Sobolewski (50.0%) are two shooters that would be welcome on any team in the country, but they pale in comparison to Northwestern’s number one shooter. Of players that have averaged 4+ 3’s per game this season, Reggie Hearn ranks 9th, making a ridiculous 57.1% of his attempts. The ability to spread the floor with four outstanding shooters is reminiscent of Lafayette who absolutely lit Maryland up from beyond the arc (15/32 – 46.9%). Maryland ranks 215th in the country in 3-point percentage defense, and if they don’t get out on shooters tonight they could be fighting out of an early hole all game.

From the department of things I didn’t think I’d be saying: Northwestern has size to match up with Maryland. There are two seven footers on the roster in Alex Olah (7’0”) and Chier Ajou (7’2”). That means that Alex Len won’t have his customary ridiculous size advantage on the inside (although the skill advantage should definitely still be there). The only small starter is Sobolewski at the point. Hearn (6’4”), Crawford (6’5”), and most worryingly Swopshire (6’8”) all are adequately sized for their positions. Big small forwards like Swopshire present a big problem for the Terps because the only player on the roster with the mobility and size to guard them is Layman who has struggled on D this season.

Lastly, this is a very experienced team that isn’t going to come apart at the big moment. Hearn, Crawford and Swopshire are all seniors that take good care of the ball and know how to sink big shots down the stretch. All of these factors say this game will not be easy.

How Maryland can win:

A blueprint that should hold for the rest of the season is crashing the offensive boards for second chances. Maryland excels at it, and even though they don’t shoot a great percentage, taking more shots than your opponent is a fundamentally simple way to victory.

Obviously with all of the gunners looming on Northwestern, there needs to be a concerted effort to close out on shooters. More than anything in basketball, the three is the great equalizer. Maryland vastly outplayed Lafayette in every facet of their game, but the Leopards hung around all game because of their deadly accurate outside shooting. In that game, the Terps didn’t do a great job of getting out to contest open looks. In this game, the rebound and free throw disparities won’t be nearly as large, so minimizing open threes will be a huge part of whether Maryland leaves Evanston with a win.

Lastly, I think Maryland is going to lose the turnover battle tonight. As long as they don’t lose it by too much, that shouldn’t make too much of a difference. That means fewer out of control charges from Nick Faust, less mid-air pass attempts from Seth Allen, and Charles Mitchell recognizing he can’t bulldoze his way to points every time. Northwestern is an experienced team that should do a good job of taking care of the ball. If Maryland can take a cue from that and keep the turnover battle close, they should be able to overwhelm the Wildcats with their sheer volume of shots.

Prediction: I’m an optimist. Although this is the Terps first road game, this will be Northwestern’s toughest game of the season as well. Although they have size on the inside, neither of their big men have faced a big man with the talent of Alex Len, so expect another big night from the Ukranian. Overall, I see ways that Maryland can limit Northwestern’s strengths (closing out on shooters, clogging up the passing lanes), but it’s more difficult for me to see Northwestern somehow neutralizing Maryland’s dominance on the boards. I think Northwestern shoots well from three, but not well enough to overcome a double digit rebounding disadvantage, and Maryland – barely – gets their first resume-worthy win tonight.

Northwestern – 68 Maryland – 73