The Fighting Illini started 2021 with a 66-58 home win versus Purdue and an 81-56 win in Evanston against Northwestern (which could be the weirdest basketball game I’ve ever seen).
Illinois will seek its fifth straight victory Sunday night against the Maryland Terrapins at State Farm Center.
Maryland swept both meetings with Illinois last season. The Illini dropped a 59-58 heartbreaker in College Park, squandering a 15-point halftime lead. Ayo Dosunmu was held to only 9 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Kofi Cockburn played just 21 minutes due to foul trouble, finishing with 9 points and 8 rebounds. In the rematch, Illinois shot under 26% in the second half, losing 75-66 in Champaign. Ayo again stuggled, hitting just 5-of-17 field goals.
Maryland ended its season at 24-7 (14-6 Big Ten), but the Terps were an average team away from home, finishing a combined 8-6 in road and neutral-site games. Mark Turgeon’s team was stingy on defense, allowing a mere 64.5 PPG, but struggled offensively at times (31.1% three-point). Maryland was sensational at getting to the free throw line, outshooting opponents 669-444 at the stripe.
The Terrapins finished ranked No. 11 in the final KenPom ratings.
The Terrapins are a vastly different squad than last year’s co-conference champs. They enter Sunday’s game at 6-6 (1-5 Big Ten), losers of three consecutive games. Their only win was a surprising 70-64 triumph at Wisconsin on Dec. 28. The Terrapins now sit 12th in the Big Ten standings, ahead of only winless teams Penn State & Nebraska.
Maryland is coming off an especially ugly loss to Iowa Thursday night, in which the Hawkeyes ended the first half on a 35-7 scoring run en route to an 89-67 blowout.
The Big Ten is stacked, but having to face offenses like Iowa and Illinois back-to-back is especially harsh. And the Terps don’t have the frontcourt size to battle with the better big men in the league, like Luka Garza and Cockburn.
Players to Watch
The Terrapins lost arguably their two top players from a season ago — Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith — and have a trio of players trying to replace that production for Mark Turgeon.
Sophomore forward Donta Scott has been the Terrapins’ best all-around scorer, averaging 12.9 points per game (14.3 in Big Ten play) on 58.3% shooting (51.3% three-point). Scott also leads the team in rebounding at 7.3 per game.
6-foot-5 junior guard Eric Ayala leads Maryland in points (14.0 per game), free throw percentage (86%), steals (12), and minutes played (31.9). He’ll likely be tasked with trying to slow down Ayo.
Aaron Wiggins is the third member of this Terrapin triumvirate, averaging 11.9 points (13.2 in Big Ten) and pacing the team in assists with 39.
What to Expect
Maryland is a wing-oriented team — the Illini will have lots of length and to contend with in the backcourt. Because of this, I foresee Illinois leaning on Cockburn for much of this game. He’s been playing at an All-American level the past six games, averaging 20 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Kofi appears to be ramping up at the right time (but please make your free throws, k?) and the Terps don’t offer much in terms of size.
Maryland also gave up a ton of easy baskets in the paint against Iowa. The Hawkeyes were slashing and attacking the rim with little resistance. This bodes well for Ayo & Andre Curbelo especially.
The Illini will be expected to win most of their games the rest of season. The Big Ten is perhaps the deepest its ever been, but I’m predicting a fairly comfortable (10-15 point) win for Illinois, especially in Champaign.