No. 9 Maryland basketball and the Illinois Illini will face off at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. Both teams are getting hot at the right time. Here are keys to the matchup Friday at 8 pm ET on FS1.
Maryland basketball (18-4, 8-3 Big Ten) was able to breathe a sigh of relief after the first meeting against the Illini when they met back in December. In that game, Illinois came out firing on all cylinders. They led for most of the game but the Terps showed the extent of their resiliency. The turning point for them was the last five minutes of the game.
Anthony Cowan Jr. made a series of spectacular plays: he ran the length of the floor for a fast break contact layup 53-48 Illini, drained a game-tying deep three that led to an Xfinity Center eruption 58-58, and he stole the ball, got fouled and made the game-winning free throw. These were clutch sequences of playmaking by the senior. He finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals.
Both teams have made their presence felt in January and are looking to do the same in February. The Illini have won four out of their last five games. Ayo Dosunmu (15.8 PPG, four RPG) and Kofi Cockburn (14 PPG, 9.2 RPG) are their primary scoring options but Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier are also viable scoring options as well.
Maryland basketball will be looking for another key road victory. They went into Assembly Hall and beat the Indiana Hoosiers in a hostile environment a few weeks ago. Will they be able to do the same on the road against the Illini? Here are my keys to a game that could decide who remains atop the conference.
Get solid production out of their bench
The Illini outscored the Terps 18-2 in bench points the first time these two teams played. That’s unacceptable because of the talent and depth the Terps have. Players that need to have big games off the bench in Champaign are Serrel Smith Jr. and Ricky Lindo Jr. This would be a game where the Terps could use Lindo Jr.’s length on the boards and get some offensive production out of him too. Smith Jr. primarily spots up for perimeter shots and while he hasn’t been the most consistent this season, that doesn’t mean he can’t have a good game on Friday. If these two get 10-12 minutes, they need to make it count.
The Terp’s most productive player on the bench has been Aaron Wiggins. He’s averaging close to 11 points and six rebounds this season and has maintained a good level of production to this point. He has struggled some from the perimeter as of late but it’s not a glaring issue because he helps the team in other ways.
If these three players contribute in some form, the bench production could propel the Terps to victory.
Find different ways to get Anthony Cowan Jr. involved
Cowan Jr. has been at his best this season when he attacks the basket, runs the ball down the court and makes clutch shots when his team needs him too. I highly doubt Illinois is going to let him run wild out there on their home floor. What they may try to do is trap him in man-to-man or zone defense to prevent him from getting into the paint.
When the ball stands still for Maryland basketball, that works to the defense’s favor. The result is either a rushed shot or a possible turnover. The Terps have been more fluid with their ball movement in recent games. So if the Terps force Illinois to chase him off catch and shoot ball screens, pick and rolls or he works to get open off the ball, he could disrupt their defensive game plan.
Control the tempo
Illinois did that in their first meeting and they had a 16-5 lead at the midway point in the first half. If Maryland basketball is going to win this game, they need to set the tone early on defense to get their offense going. Utilizing the fast break would benefit the Terps offensively because they are good at it. Whether the Terps convert on those opportunities or not, it will still keep Illinois off-balance.
If they’re able to get it, this would be a huge win for the Terps. They would still have to win to get some breathing room but either way, their contention for the NCAA Tournament seems certain.