James Madison guard Jalen Smith will play for the first time as a Maryland Terrapin on Saturday against his former high school team, when the No. 2 Terrapins (22-1, 9-1) visit Michigan State.
It’s the early game of Saturday’s “Big 10 Thriller Weekend” as two of the most illustrious college basketball programs prepare to meet for the second time in four days, an inauspicious start to Smith’s new adventure.
“I think at this point in the year, it’s cool,” Smith said. “I kind of look at it a little bit like an early spring game. I just want to prove who I am and take my steps forward this week.”
Smith, a 6-foot-9 junior forward who transferred from James Madison, was fifth in the nation with 24.5 points per game as a rookie in 2013-14 before averaging 30.8 points per game his sophomore season, fifth in the nation and 20.1 points per game last year. In 22 games this season (including 13 starts), he’s averaging a more modest 17.8 points per game, sixth in the Big Ten, and 9.8 rebounds, 15th in the conference.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play him,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said, “and then we ended up playing him the next day.”
Smith finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds in the Terrapins’ 55-53 win over Michigan State on Sunday after scoring 10 points in the first six minutes of the game.
“Michigan State’s defense is so good, you never know what to expect,” Turgeon said. “He had like 15 shots in that first half and didn’t score. I thought he was going to give it away for 20 points there.”
But Smith said on Monday that Maryland’s defense had been its weak point since the Terrapins dropped from No. 1 in the Associated Press poll to No. 3 in mid-January.
“The defensive practices are way better, the practice drills and stuff,” Smith said. “I’m starting to understand a lot more of what I have to do, and I guess I’m doing it. It’s still a process, though.”
Smith had scored 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting, a .444 percentage, in Maryland’s two previous games, games against Ohio State and Rutgers, respectively. He shot just 5-for-19 in Sunday’s win over Michigan State, taking only four field-goal attempts. Smith said he played his worst defensive game of the season.
“Probably a 16-point game,” he said. “Probably defensive-wise, probably a loss. I wasn’t running a lot of sets. I had to get used to the last couple of weeks of games where teams weren’t really showing any kind of coverages. I think I’ve gotten better since then, and I should be fine this week.”
Smith gave Maryland a shot to win late in Sunday’s game when he drove past Michigan State’s guards and got to the foul line, hitting both free throws for a 46-44 lead. But with 3:45 left, Miles Bridges and Nick Ward both scored the go-ahead baskets.
Afterward, Turgeon said, “It would’ve been great if Jalen Smith’s three-point play with three minutes left would’ve won it. That would’ve taken some starch out of their team.”