Illinois (12-5, 2-2) vs Maryland (15-2, 3-1)
When: Saturday, January 14th | 5:00pm CST
Where: State Farm Center | Champaign, IL
KenPom: Illinois (62nd) vs Maryland (55th)
Television: ESPN2 (also available on WatchESPN app)
After picking up their best win of the young Big Ten season, Illinois will try to continue to ride the momentum as they welcome in the Maryland Terrapins for a pivotal conference clash. The Terps ran all over the orange and blue when these two teams met up in College Park earlier this season, so John Groce and company will be undoubtedly be licking their chops for some redemption this Saturday night.
Recent lineup changes have helped add versatility and athleticism to the Illini rotation, as freshmen Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas both made a huge impact in last Wednesday’s win over Michigan. On the other side of the coin, seniors Mike Thorne Jr. and Jaylon Tate combined to log zero minutes against the Wolverines. Tate was reportedly out with an illness, but Thorne was a healthy scratch. Personally it was very refreshing to see some young energy injected into the Illinois lineup, though both Tate and Thorne may see time against the Terrapins if healthy. Assistant coach Paris Parham, who had the scout the last time these two teams met, will once again be in charge of constructing a gameplan to topple Maryland. This time around you can be sure the Illini will be playing with a lot more fight with the home crowd behind them.
That said, Mark Turgeon’s squad boasts several NBA prospects, most notably point guard Melo Trimble. The senior was just added to the midseason Wooden Award watch list and is averaging nearly 18 points per game. He will likely be one of the first Big Ten players off the board in this year’s NBA draft. Down low the Terps have another threat in Damonte Dodd. Dodd torments the opposition’s big men on a nightly basis and averages almost three blocks a game. He picked up a career-high six swats against Indiana earlier this week which moved him to twelfth all-time on Maryland’s career blocks list. Neither Dodd nor fellow big man Michal Cekovsky played against Illinois earlier this season, so it will be key to scout them successfully. If Illinois is going to beat Maryland, they’ll need to take away the Terps’ strong paint presence.
Numbers to Know
That’s Maryland’s record in games decided by ten points or fewer this season. Over the past three seasons under Turgeon, the Terps are 27-5 in contests decided by six points or less. They added to their success in close games with a three point win over the Hoosiers this past Tuesday. Melo Trimble once again came up with clutch shots that helped seal the victory. One thing you don’t want to do against the Terrapins is get in a back-and-forth sprint. Illinois will need to come out strong and control this game from the opening tip, because Maryland seems pretty comfortable heading into the final TV timeout of a tight matchup. In fact, the Terps have fewer losses on the road than they do at home; they’re an impressive 5-0 away from College Park.
That’s Jalen Coleman-Lands’ three-point shooting percentage over the past three games. I jumped on CBSSports insider Jon Rothstein yesterday for tweeting that JCL is the biggest key on the Illinois roster, but his impact has undoubtedly been felt during the team’s first two conference wins.
As Jalen Coleman-Lands goes, so will Illinois. John Groce's team can make the NCAA Tournament if this kid makes 3's. Illini beat Michigan.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 12, 2017
Illinois is now 6-1 this season in games where Jalen Coleman-Lands scores in double-figures. X-Factor? No question. Critical piece.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 12, 2017
If JCL can continue to be this lethal of a shooter from beyond the arc, it will open up the rest of the court and make Illinois’ overall gameplan much more effective. Coleman-Lands has made the Illini faithful forget all about Kendrick Nunn, and he’ll have to continue this hot streak on Saturday night if the orange and blue want to walk away with a victory.
That’s how many points Kipper Nichols had scored in his entire collegiate career prior to his 13 point, 8 rebound outburst against the Michigan Wolverines this week. Nichols, who transferred to Illinois and had to sit out the first semester’s worth of games, helped spark the Illini to victory on Wednesday by providing tremendous athleticism and tenacity on the glass. If Nichols can continue this level of production, as only a freshman, look out for what he could develop into by his upperclassmen years.
Keys to the Game
1. Feed Maverick
Remember when Maverick Morgan was the goofy benchwarmer who everybody cheered when Groce finally let him in the game? He’s come a long, long way since those days. Morgan is becoming (dare I say?) one of the top centers in the Big Ten, and he’s certainly earned the starting nod over Mike Thorne Jr. The senior’s amazing transformation only continued this past Wednesday when he dropped 16 points and four assists in a career-high 29 minutes played.
Mav’s recent hot streak, which currently seats him at third best in the Big Ten in shooting percentage, means that the Illini will need to feed him the ball early and often to establish an inside presence against the Terps. He got off to a great start against Michigan that helped set the tone, let’s see if he can do something similar versus Maryland.
2. Utilize the State Farm Center
This may seem like an obvious key, but Illinois has the home crowd behind them on Saturday and they need to use that to their advantage. The Illini are 9-1 in the State Farm Center this season, the sole loss coming in overtime to Winthrop. Sometimes the idea of a ‘home court advantage’ is overblown in college basketball, but I truly believe the orange and blue play and respond much better at home. For whatever reason, they’ve been a different (and much better) team at SFC this year. They need to make sure to get the (Orange Krush-less) crowd going early and often on Saturday night.
3. Protect the Paint
I mentioned this above, but Maryland is adding a paint presence that the Illini did not see the last time these teams met. Most will say that the first and only key to stopping Maryland is stopping Melo Trimble. That’s true, but he’s going to score points and make clutch shots regardless. He’s averaging as many points per game as Malcolm Hill is; there’s no way you can completely shut a guy like Trimble down, he’s going to make some shots. What would be more advantageous for Illinois would be shutting down the paint and eliminating the Terps’ big man game. Dodd and Jackson are playmakers for the Terrapins and made a huge impact in their win over Indiana. If the Illini can turn the Maryland gameplan into a much more one-dimensional, “give Melo the ball and clear out” offense, that improves the orange and blue’s chances of springing the upset greatly.
Projected Starting Lineups
- Melo Trimble (17.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG)
- Kevin Huerter (8.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
- Anthony Cowan (10.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG)
- Justin Jackson (10.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG)
- Damonte Dodd (6.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
Illinois Fighting Illini
- Tracy Abrams (10.5 PPG, 2.6 APG)
- Jalen Coleman-Lands (9.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
- Malcolm Hill (18.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
- Leron Black (9.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG)
- Maverick Morgan (9.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
Maryland is a better team than Illinois, and it obviously showed in College Park earlier this season. I don’t think the Illini are as bad as they looked on December 27th, especially given their strong performance earlier this week against Michigan, but in the end Maryland has the advantage and I think they’ll come away with an extremely close victory. KenPom actually favors Illinois slightly in this matchup (predicts a two-point win), which shows that this game is much more of a toss-up than I would’ve thought even a week ago. But the Terps are young and versatile, and I think Trimble’s late-game heroics will once again lift Maryland to a victory.
Maryland Terrapins 73, Illinois Fighting Illini 69