Despite losing a close game to the Iowa Hawkeyes this past weekend, the Illinois Fighting Illini are still cruising through Big Ten play this season. Illinois is 8-3 in conference and has won seven of the last eight, which is good enough for the No. 20 Illini to be tied for first place in the conference with none other than their Friday evening opponent, the No. 9 Maryland Terrapins.
The stakes of this matchup are higher than they’ve been for any game in years, as the winner will emerge in sole possession of first place in the conference.
It’s so refreshing to be playing meaningful basketball again in February.
To take full advantage of this golden opportunity, the Illini will need to control the game in a few key ways.
One of the common elements of the biggest victories in 2019-20 has been late game heroics and/or major performances from Ayo Dosunmu. In Illinois’ initial meeting with then No. 3 Maryland on Dec. 7, Ayo was held to just nine points and three assists. Although Dosunmu won’t be able to win the game single-handedly, Ayo can’t be held in check in that manner again if the Illini are going win on Friday.
Defeating the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor required a 27-point breakout performance from Ayo to overcome the hostile road atmosphere along with a talented Michigan team, and I expect another 20- or 25-point burst will be required from Dosunmu (or another Illini) to earn a victory over Maryland.
When Dosunmu is playing well, he draws the attention of opposing defenses, which in turn opens opportunities for Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz. With this dynamic in mind, the Illini are usually in good shape in one way or another when Ayo is playing well, as he either controls the game himself or allows his teammates to do so.
Much of Maryland’s scoring production stems from three high-caliber players: Anthony Cowan Jr. (16.2 PPG and 4.3 APG), Jalen Smith (15.3 PPG and 9.8 RPG) and Aaron Wiggins (10.9 PPG). Among them, Cowan is certainly the most dangerous, but his teammates are plenty athletic as well.
The Illini will need to leverage the usual high-energy defense of Da’Monte Williams to limit the impact of Maryland’s guards. Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili will have their hands full with 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Jalen Smith, who also stretches the floor shooting 41.4% from beyond the arc.
This matchup will should be a fantastic game, as NBA-caliber talent will face off in front of a sold out SFC with the Orange Krush in full force and Scott Van Pelt in the audience.
All eyes in the college basketball world will be on Champaign Friday night, and if the Illini emerge victorious, then the path to a (comfortable) berth in the NCAA Tournament becomes much easier and more likely.
There are a few tickets left, grab yours here!