Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
January 6, 2022
After the quick turnaround following a blowout win in Minneapolis, the Illini will head home to take on the Maryland Terrapins. In the last two years, the Illini have had the best record in B1G conference games, but a win over Maryland has eluded them. Hopefully, Illinois can change this dynamic, as Maryland is bringing less talent to the matchup, having lost key contributors to the transfer portal and to the NBA. In addition, they lost their head coach earlier in the season.
Illinois carries a seven-game B1G winning streak into tonight's game. The Illini won their final four games last season along with this year's 3-0 start. It is the third seven-game league win streak of the Underwood Era. Ironically, despite this hot streak, the Fighting Illini are looking for their first victory over Maryland in Champaign since January 7, 2016. Maryland has won 7 of the last 8 matchups to lead the overall series 12-6 over the Illini.
Maryland comes into the game with an 8-5 record and 0-2 in the B1G with losses to Northwestern (67-61) and at Iowa (80-75). Eric Ayala leads the team in scoring at 15.2 points per game and Qudus Wahab leads the team with 7.4 rebounds per game. The team's Achilles heel is their anemic three-point shooting as they shoot an unimpressive 30.7% from beyond the arc.
As a comparison, the Illini are shooting a remarkable 39.9% from the three-point arc. In whole numbers, the Illini have made 132 3-pointers for 396 points and Maryland has only made 79 3-pointers for 237 points. The 159 more points over the Illini's 13 games this season makes a big difference when it comes to wins and losses and determining how you defend the Illinois squad.
Coming into the season, Maryland was expected to be a top five team in the conference. A big part of that was due to expectations on Qudus Wahab. He averaged 12.7 points a game for Georgetown last year and was a primary reason they were able to pull off an upset and make it to the NCAA tournament. This year he’s not bad, but he is only averaging 10 points a game, and is playing 6 minutes a game less than last season. Most times this happens to a player, it’s due to foul trouble. Wahab hasn’t fouled out of any games this season, but he’s had three to four fouls in five of the last seven games Maryland has played. Similar to Minnesota, Wahab is Maryland’s only player over 6’9” getting significant minutes.
While it seems repetitive to say before yet another game that Illinois should pound the rock into Kofi Cockburn, but this is yet another time the matchup favors Illinois if they get the ball into the paint. If Maryland tries to go small this shouldn’t affect Illinois’ game plan as none of the Maryland back-up options are skilled at spacing the floor. It’s doubtful Cockburn will be thinking about individual awards at this point in the season, but it’s safe to say that his recent play puts him in contention for Big 10 player and in solid consideration for national player of the year.
During the Minnesota game, nobody – outside of Cockburn – played their best game of the season. The team shot good, but not great, from all over the floor. Yet their performance was dominant because of their defense. This Maryland team is going to try to slow the pace and make the Illini guard for the entire 30 second shot clock. If Illinois can come out disciplined and make Maryland take tough shots, they should be able to capitalize at home.
Knowing the scouting report will be important as there are only a few Maryland players who shoot well from the perimeter. Hakim Hart, Eric Ayala, and Fatts Russel are the only ones shooting 33% or above at this point in the season. Dante Scott shot 43.8% last year at the power forward position but has struggled this year from long distance. It will be important to make sure he doesn’t get an early confidence boost.
Last week’s canceled game versus Florida A&M University was supposed to be Andre Curbelo’s return. Since he didn’t play in the Minnesota road game, it may be that Coach Underwood is saving his return for the home crowd to build Curbelo’s confidence after his lengthy absence. Though Maryland will be a tough matchup, it will certainly be easier than the next two Illinois home games – Purdue and Michigan. Illinois may need him for those games and getting him oriented ahead of time could be beneficial to helping him return to game speed. It may also help Coach Underwood gain insight into how he wants to adjust lineups as he adds another non-shooter to the court. If he doesn’t return for this game, let’s hope that Curbelo is brought back versus Nebraska at Lincoln.
This will be a pride game for the Maryland Terrapins, a team that has bested Illinois consistently over recent years. Ultimately, Illinois is going up against a team that hasn’t played many games together and a brand-new head coach. It may be a low scoring affair but expect the Illini to come out on top.
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