If you’ve paid any attention, there have been a few story lines in the Big Ten in recent weeks. Michigan State has struggled a bit, although I think everyone expects Tom Izzo to make another deep run in the tournament this year. Michigan and Ohio State have impressed beyond expectations and made their way into the top-10 rankings. Indiana even looks like a team that could finish in the top tier of the Big Ten standings.
And, of course, Mark Turgeon’s Maryland Terrapins look scary. In fact, this might be the most talented team he has had in a while down in College Park. Heading into Saturday afternoon’s matchup with the Illini, the Terrapins have beaten the likes of Harvard, Marquette and Notre Dame and made it look fairly easy doing so. Brad Underwood has a lot on his hands to prepare for.
Players to watch
This is an easy one. To be truthful, I could probably put any of a handful of players here, but there are two that you likely already know the names of: Jalen Smith and Anthony Cowan.
Smith, of course, was the stud freshman last season who, at 6-10, paired nicely with Bruno Fernando (who has since left for the NBA). He averaged just under 12 points and eight boards last year, and so far this season leads the team in both points and rebounds with 14.3 and 9.7, respectively. His field goal percentage has also increased from 42.9% last season to 52.9% this season. That’s impressive. He was able to shoot threes in 2018-2019 at a fairly low clip (26.8%) but so far is 0-for-5 from deep this year.
Anthony Cowan is a name all Illini fans should know. His keen play downed the Illini in Underwood’s first season when he drew a foul on Mark Alstork as time expired. This play ended what was an incredible comeback against the Terps at home.
Although he hasn’t been incredibly efficient so far this year (40.7% FGs and 27.3% 3P), he leads the team in assists and brings great skill to the game. His points per game is down slightly from a year ago, but Cowan is still no doubt the leader of this Maryland squad.
Keys to the game
If we learned anything from the Miami game (which had such a similar feel as the fake rally against the Terps two years ago), it’s that this team often struggles out of the gate. Underwood needs to make sure that his guys are ready to go immediately and not sleepwalk in the second half. Maryland is no Miami, and if the Illini are down big early, it is unlikely they will be able to claw their way back. This is simple to say, but harder to put into practice.
Secondly, the offense needs to flow through the paint. Things started to turn around mightily in the Miami game when Kofi was getting touches in the paint. Although he will not have nearly the size advantage that he did against Jim Larranaga’s team, he is actually listed as two inches taller and 65 pounds heavier than Jalen Smith. If Kofi and Giorgi can get going down low, Trent, Ayo and Alan will get more open looks from downtown. They are going to need to be more efficient shooting the ball if they want to have a chance in this game.
Finally, something needs to change on defense. Whatever sort of plan Underwood had against Miami was atrocious. The guards look unmotivated to move their feet and communicate, and the bigs got out of position easily and this resulted in giving up a lot of easy buckets in the paint. I expect Underwood will have a firmer gameplan going into this one, and he is going to need it.
This will certainly be the biggest test of the Illini’s season so far which — I think most fans would agree — has been a bit disappointing given the Arizona and Miami games. Still, the season is very much in play and there is plenty of room for growth. If the Illini come out energized and can exploit Kofi’s relative size advantage in the paint, they at least have a good chance at staying in the game. I believe the real battle will be stopping Cowan and Smith on the other side of the floor — something we have not seen this team do well this season.
I think this game will show us a lot about the 2019-2020 Illini, and Underwood will have a solid gameplan coming in. That being said, Maryland might be the best team Mark Turgeon has fielded in years, and I don’t see Trent and Ayo hitting enough shots to come away with a win.
Maryland 86, Illinois 74