The Fighting Illini are coming off an impressive second-half comeback victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers in their last game at the State Farm Center this season. Kendrick Nunn knocked in 25 points, and freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands contributed five three-pointers en route to being named Big Ten freshman of the week. He averaged 16 points and shot nearly 50 percent from three in the month of February. Not to be outdone, Malcolm Hill recorded his fifteenth 20-plus point game this year and also grabbed seven rebounds. Now the Illini will embark on a two-game road trip to wrap up the regular season before heading to the Big Ten Tournament next week in Indianapolis. The front end of the road doubleheader is a matchup in College Park with the fourteenth-ranked Maryland Terrapins.
The Terps, who currently sit at third place in the Big Ten, are closing out their season at the Xfinity Center, celebrating seniors Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman before the game. Layman is just one of the many pieces Maryland boasts right now; sophomore guard Melo Trimble and freshman big man Diamond Stone are two other key players, averaging 14.2 and 13 points per game respectively. Stone also pulls in 5.4 boards per game while Trimble dishes out 5.2 assists per contest. They rank 35th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They're near the top of the list for blocks per game and free-throw percentage as well, so it's certainly fair to call them an all-around team.
Maryland had an incredibly hot start to the season, winning seventeen of their first nineteen games. Many analysts were picking them to win the NCAA championship, in fact. But since then the Terps have fallen off a bit, losing on the road to Minnesota and Ohio State and suffering a double-digit home loss to Wisconsin in the past two weeks. If you're into the transitive property, the Illini should win this game (Maryland lost to Minnesota who lost to Illinois).
This is the seventh top-25 opponent the orange and blue have squared off against this year; they're currently just 1-5 versus ranked teams. That lone victory game against the Purdue Boilermakers back in early January in Champaign. John Groce's squad does however boast a good recent streak against the Terps. Illinois has won three straight against Maryland dating back to 2010, when they beat them at the Garden in the 2K Sports Classic. They also picked up victories in College Park the following season during the ACC/B1G challenge and at home last season.
"Bracketologists" are projecting Maryland to be a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament right now, and with the Big Ten Tournament looming, they'll be looking to reverse momentum and get back to their winning ways from earlier in the season. If the BTT were to begin tomorrow, MD would be the 4-seed, getting the double bye and playing either Wisconsin or the winner of Minnesota-Illinois on Friday. Speaking of the Illini, they'd have to win this game and the subsequent matchup with Penn State if they want any hope of getting the 10-seed in Indy. That would mean a contest against (most likely) the Ohio State Buckeyes in one of the Thursday games. If they lose either of their final two matchups, it would most likely mean an 11-14 game with Rutgers.
My Pick: The Illini need to win this game if they want any chance of getting a bye and starting on Thursday in next week's Big Ten Tournament. That will undoubtedly be on the players' minds, and I think coming off a strong second half against Minnesota the orange and blue will bring a strong effort on the road to College Park. But Maryland, despite their recent struggles, is just too good. It'll be closer than many expect it to be, but the Terps will eventually pull away for the victory, 80-70.
KenPom Pick: Maryland 78, Illinois 64 (9% win probability for the Illini)
Let us know who YOU think is going to win in the comments below!