Maryland Terrapins-Illinois Fighting Illini Preview: Terps Host Illini in ACC-Big Ten Challenge

Changing gears.

If we're being frank, I think we can acknowledge that Maryland isn't likely to have any big, out-of-conference wins against high-majors this year. Perhaps their best chance will come in the BB&T Classic, when they play in a semi-home environment against a Notre Dame team that, like Maryland, lacks depth and, unlike Maryland, will be without their best and most important player, Tim Abromaitis.

The next-best chance, though, might be coming up tomorrow, when the Terrapins host the Illinois Fighting Illini for their leg of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, their first home game in the event since defeating a Manny Harris-led Michigan team in the Comcast Center three years ago. The Illini come into the game undefeated, though admittedly against a weak schedule: their best win came against Richmond by nine points, a team within shouting shouting of Maryland in the statistical rankings.

You might remember Illinois from last year, when the Terps met them in the 2K Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Madison Square Garden and ended up losing by only four points. In that game the Terrapins were foiled by 20 points from Illinois all-everything point guard Demetri McCamey, three unlikely three-pointers from lowly reserve forward Tyler Griffey, and a 52% shooting performance from beyond the arc by the Illini.

These two teams, though, bear minimal resemblance to the two teams that met last year in MSG. The Terrapins lose easily their best player from last year in Jordan Williams (he dropped 15 and 13 in last season's game), plus Dino Gregory, Cliff Tucker, Adrian Bowie, Haukur Palsson, and (at least for this game) Pe'Shon Howard. The only notable reinforcement comes in the way of Nick Faust, who's been more miss than hit early in the year.

Illinois, for their part, will also be without their best player from last year's campaign, as McCamey's graduated and moved on to play in Europe. They're also revamping their post game, as Mike Tisdale (the annoying, lanky 7-1 guy who loved to shoot threes), Mike Davis (who averaged 12 and 7 last  year), and key reserve Bill Cole have all graduated, too. Between McCamey, Tisdale, and Davis, Illinois are without their leading three scorers from last year; they're basically dealing with the same situation Maryland was in when Greivis Vasquez, Eric Hayes, and Landon Milbourne graduated. They do, however, have a pretty impressive group of freshmen coming in, adding four four-star recruits and Bradley point guard transfer Sam Maniscalco.

If the Terrapins stand a chance at the upset, they'll likely have to find a way to limit post man Meyers Leonard, a 7-1 sophomore who was very highly-regarded coming out of high school and has occupied a much larger role this year. Long, athletic (for his size), and not entirely lacking in skill, Leonard has seen leaps and strides in his game, going for 22 and 12 against Richmond earlier in the year and averaging about 12 and 7 all year. It'd be nice to have Alex Len available in this game to counter with a lanky 7-1 guy of Maryland's own, but unfortunately it's likely that Berend Weijs, who's long arms make up for his 6-10 height, or Ashton Pankey, who also has a long wingspan and is athletic and strong enough to cause problems defensively and on the boards.

Their most important players of the year so far, though, have actually been on the perimeter. D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, two junior combos, both started last year, but were certainly fourth and fifth fiddle behind the now-graduated Big Three. Along with Maniscalco, they're looked to lead the team, and have done a decent job it. Richardson is leading the Illini with around 14 ppg, while Paul leads in assists (3 per game) and adds eight points of his own. Maniscalco has perhaps been a bit of a surprise, garnering major minutes and averaging 11.5 points and 2.5 assists.

Richardson is certainly the most dangerous man on the perimeter, particularly with his outside stroke. He's shooting 41% from three, and he's not afraid to pull the trigger: he's attempting about six treys each contest. Maryland did a good job of limiting FGCU's outside shooting, but they're not exactly Illinois. Maniscalco, at 39%, is also an outside threat. They're not an outside shooting team, but if the right guy gets hot or if Maryland's defending gets lazy, they have the potential to make the Terrapins pay.

What truly scares me about Illinois, however, is their defensive prowess. Sure, they've faced some terrible teams, but they're still 32nd in KenPom in AdjD efficiency and 11th in the raw defensive efficiency numbers. That's Alabama-esque, and we all saw what happened there. They're 70th in defensive TO% and 29th in eFG%, which are mighty intimidating numbers for a team that managed 42 points against a similar outfit earlier in the year.

And yes, they press. It isn't normally Illinois M.O. and, unlike Iona, they won't push the tempo, as they have one of the slower tempos in the country, which is good news. But they won't sit back and let Maryland walk the ball up the court all game, a decision Bruce Weber made in the offseason. That did Maryland in against Iona and almost got them against Florida-Gulf Coast, too. It's unlikely that the Terrapins suddenly figured out a way to handle pressure effectively, but for let's hope they did, because another five turnovers on inbound plays won't be easy to overcome.

The slower tempo, though, is a good thing. It should mean less time in critical spots for the walk-ons, who had to player serious minutes in the first half against Iona's break-neck pace.

Hey, at least Terrell Stoglin lit up Illinois last year for 17 points. Maybe he has good memories.

KenPom, for what it's worth, actually has Maryland as a slight favorite in this one, perhaps because Illinois hasn't played anyone of note yet. Richmond isn't the same team they were last year, after all. Perhaps a hostile environment (if there actually is one) and a team with some talent will surprise them. After all, it's a largely inexperienced squad, featuring a half-dozen freshmen and only two returning starters. Maryland, after all, has faced a much more difficult schedule to start the year.

With any luck, that'll count for something, because Maryland is losing each of the four factors by a fair margin (I don't count FT rate for Maryland because, no matter how much they get to the line, they don't make any of them). As always, this year is more about individual progress and performances, not results. Illinois will be a strong test in both of those areas come tomorrow.

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