Big Ten Conference play heats up Saturday when Illinois visits third-ranked Maryland at College Park, Md.
The Fighting Illini are 6-2, but they’re headed to meet the undefeated Terrapins (9-0), who are off to their best start since 1998-99. Maryland routed Notre Dame 72-51 Wednesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge to run its record to 6-0 at home this season.
Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Maryland is 36-6 at home.
The Illini have hit a big part of their schedule, opening conference play against the ranked Terrapins and then hosting a hot Michigan squad — currently ranked fourth — next week.
“This is obviously a big opportunity for this team,” junior Illinois guard Trent Frazier told reporters. “We’ve got to take this serious and show the nation what we’re about.”
Illinois also has to get off to a better start than it did Monday at home. Trailing by 27 points at one time to Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Illinois put together a furious rally before bowing 81-79.
Big freshman Kofi Cockburn, all 7 feet, 290 pounds of him, led the comeback with 23 points, his seventh double-figure scoring effort this season.
Illinois also has 6-9 sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili around the basket, averaging 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, to go with Cockburn’s 16.3 and 11.0 averages. It’s the kind of big front line the new and improved Terrapins haven’t seen this year.
“It’ll be a different challenge on Saturday because (Illinois) has two big kids that can really play,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “It’s how quickly we can adjust, and that’ll be a sign of what kind of team we can be defensively.”
Maryland has been pretty solid defensively, though a propensity to start slowly in most games has made Turgeon’s hair a little grayer of late. The Terrapins are holding opponents to 36.6 percent shooting this season, while cranking up their running game to the tune of 80.0 points per game scored on offense.
Notre Dame was the latest victim. The Terps missed their first 10 3-point attempts and trailed 9-4 before hitting the gas to run away.
The Irish, typically a potent offensive powerhouse, mustered just 29 percent shooting and saw 10 of their shots returned to sender, including a career-best five blocked shots from sophomore forward Jalen “Stix” Smith. Smith also added 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, his fifth double-double so far this year.
Illinois may have the type of balanced attack to weather Maryland’s defensive storm. The Illini boast all five starters in double-figure scoring. After Cockburn, sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu averages 15.8, senior guard Andres Feliz 14.8, and Frazier 10.3, like Bezhanishvili. The Illini are shooting 51 percent from the field as a team and have averaged 87.1 points per game.
The question is whether coach Brad Underwood’s can team match Maryland’s depth. The Terrapins typically go 9-10 players deep, and there’s not much drop-off, with a slew of talented wing players making life tough for opponents.
Point guard Anthony Cowan and fellow guards Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala and Darryl Morsell are all playing well at both ends of the court.
After Saturday, Maryland continues Big Ten play, traveling to Penn State on Dec. 10, before an eight-day break. Illinois hosts Michigan on Dec. 11.
–Field Level Media