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Maryland men’s basketball vs. No. 17 Illinois preview (part two)

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Maryland lost to Illinois on Jan. 6, 76-64.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Maryland is in a grave point of its season sitting in the basement of the Big Ten with a 1-6 record in conference play and 9-9 overall.

While interim head coach Danny Manning said the guys need to “stick together” and “somehow find a way,” only time will tell if they find a way or continue to ride on a sinking ship. For now, Maryland has another opportunity at home to avenge its loss to No. 17 Illinois earlier in the season.

Illinois has emerged as one of the better teams in the conference and in the country. Centered around its superstar big man Kofi Cockburn, the Fighting Illini will look to continue to bolster its resume against a struggling Maryland team.

Let’s dive into the matchup.

What happened last time

When these two teams met up in Illinois two weeks ago, Maryland was trying to break through in Big Ten play and gain some momentum in conference play. Instead, it lost to Illinois 76-64.

The Fighting Illini got off to a fast start, digging the Terps into a deep hole, which has been a common occurrence for Maryland this season. However, Maryland refused to give in on the road, fighting back in the first half to take a 34-30 lead into the halftime break.

That comeback was sparked by Cockburn playing limited first-half minutes due to foul trouble. With Cockburn on the bench, the Terps were able to find driving lanes and attack the basket. And defensively, they didn't need to throw as much attention one player's way.

Cockburn returned in the second half with foul trouble not being an issue the rest of the game. That allowed Cockburn to dominate on both ends and led to Illinois outscoring Maryland by 16 in the second half.

Cockburn is one of the best players in all of college basketball and is a dominant presence around the rim. Maryland had a tough time containing him. Both big man Qudus Wahab and Julian Reese got a chance to stop the junior center but had little success. Wahab and Reese both fouled out of the game. When Maryland tried doubling Cockburn, it also didn't work as he found open shooters on the perimeter.

Maryland actually shot the ball well against Illinois for its standards, but Cockburn’s presence was too overwhelming. The Terps are going to need to throw different looks Cockburn’s way to attempt to contain him if they have any shot to win on Friday.

“We have to do a much better job of rebounding the basketball,” Manning said. “We gave up far too many second chance opportunities the first time that we played against them.”

What’s happened since

Since the loss to Illinois, Maryland was continued to falter, losing its next three of four games in conference play and throwing away any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid. Maryland currently stands at 1-6 in the Big Ten, good for second to last place.

Following the Illinois game, Maryland lost a close game to Wisconsin in which they trailed by 21 points but came back to suffer a one-point defeat. Then, the Terps broke its three-game losing streak with a double-overtime win at Northwestern, its first and lone win in the Big Ten this season.

Last Saturday, Maryland faced Rutgers at home and got off to an 11-point halftime lead. However, a second-half collapse saw the Terps get outscored by 22 in the latter 20 minutes. And on Tuesday, Maryland got dominated by Michigan in a 19-point loss. Now, Maryland will once again try to avoid another three-game losing streak when they return home.

While Maryland has been trending downward since the last meeting, Illinois is doing just the opposite. The Illini won their next two matchups fairly easily against Nebraska and Michigan. Although they are coming off a double-overtime loss to Purdue, it was a game in which Illinois was down big and fought its way back in regulation against the team to beat in the Big Ten.

Illinois also got back one of its best players in Andre Curbelo who returned to the lineup against Purdue after not playing since Nov. 23. Curbelo had 20 points in 26 minutes in his return. Illinois was already a contender in the conference for a regular season and tournament title, but with Curbelo back and playing at a high level, they are an even bigger threat.

Three things to watch

1. Will we see different lineups and substitutions? Following Maryland’s last loss to Michigan, Manning said, “We’re at a point now where we’re going to push some buttons and do some things a little bit different and see what happens from there.” Maryland is at a point in its season where change can only help because it can't get much worse. Manning’s comments indicate he feels the same way and that lineup changes are coming, which could mean different starters but also bench players who have not had much opportunity could start to get more time, starting with Illinois on Friday.

2. How will Maryland game plan against Kofi Cockburn the second time around? As alluded to earlier, Cockburn dominated when he was on the floor against Maryland. He forced Qudus Wahab and Julian Reese to head to the bench early after fouling out. Maryland attempted to deny Cockburn the ball and front the post the first time they played, with minimal success. When both centers fouled out, Donta Scott got a chance on Cockburn with varying degrees of success. It’s tough to know what strategies Maryland will change or keep from the first time around. Although it is likely they will look to attack Cockburn early and do whatever they can to get him in foul trouble.

“Kofe is a handful, we understand that,” Manning said. “We’ve got to make sure it’s a collective effort.”

3. Can Maryland and Eric Ayala put two great halves together? Guard Eric Ayala has been just about the only positive for Maryland in Big Ten competition this season. When Ayala is feeling it, he is one of the best scorers in the conference and that hot hand can turn on at any moment. The only time Maryland’s offense looks competent is when Ayala is playing well and knocking down shots. However, in recent games, the senior has only put together great performances