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Maryland men’s basketball vs. Illinois preview

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The Terps are still looking for their first win in Big Ten play.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Its first showing in Big Ten play since its loss to Northwestern wasn't a letdown by any means, but Maryland men’s basketball is now 8-5 on the year and 0-2 in conference play after falling to Iowa by five points on Monday night.

The Terps kept it close with the Hawkeyes, who own a sparkling 9-1 home record this season, though a stellar 35-point performance from star Keegan Murray sealed Maryland’s fate to snap its three-game winning streak.

The rigorous Big Ten schedule will carry on for interim head coach Danny Manning and the Terps as they will next face Illinois on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

“Fighting Illini, another great challenge in front of us, this is the Big Ten basketball season,” Manning said. “They found their rhythm the other night, had an impressive win over Minnesota. Obviously they’re always a dominant team on the glass, rebound the ball especially offensively and then Kofi [Cockburn] is a tremendous challenge for anybody in the country. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Let’s take a look at what Illinois has to offer.

Illinois Fighting Illini (10-3, 3-0 Big Ten)

2020-21 record: 24-7 (16-4, Big Ten)

Head coach Brad Underwood may not have his team ranked at the moment after falling out of the AP Top 25, but Illinois will be no cakewalk, especially on the road. Illinois has won 10 of their 13 games to open the season and it has claimed victory in six of seven at home. Underwood helped lead the Fighting Illini to a No. 1-seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament, though they fell to No. 8-seed Loyola Chicago in just the second round. Illinois started as the preseason No. 11 team in the nation this year. In the latest AP poll, it is receiving the most votes out of any program that is not officially in the top-25.

Underwood was hired in March of 2017 as the head coach of the men’s basketball program at Illinois. Just a season ago, Illinois captured the Big Ten Tournament championship and went 16-4 in conference play. This team is filled with talent in just about every position and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Fighting Illini slip back into the top-25 sooner rather than later.

Players to know

Kofi Cockburn, junior center, 7-foot-0, 285 pounds — Maryland addressed its lack of a center after the 2020-21 season concluded and it’ll need to show for it when it faces one of the best big men in the nation on Thursday. Cockburn missed the first three games of the season because of a suspension from the NCAA, but since then, the 2021-22 Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year hasn't disappointed in his nine games played. Averaging just under 30 minutes per game, Cockburn is a walking double-double with 22.5 points and 11.9 rebounds per contest. His field goal percentage, which lies above 60% (84 shots made on 138 attempts), is an achievement in its own right. Not many teams are able to stop a player of Cockburn’s caliber, and Maryland’s Qudus Wahab and Julian Reese will have their hands full in the paint.

“Mostly what I’ve heard is Kofi Cockburn, just a low-post killer,” graduate guard Xavier Green said. “I know that’s gonna be a tough matchup. As a team, we’re gonna have to dig down and double him and make sure he gets not that many touches. But I heard that mostly about him and they can shoot the three pretty well so we have to guard the three and guard inside.”

Alfonso Plummer, graduate guard, 6-foot-1, 180 pounds — With sophomore guard Andre Curbelo dealing with a neck injury, Plummer has done more than enough to fill his absence with how he’s been playing. After failing to hit double-digits in points in each of his first four games, Plummer has scored at least 20 points in all but two games over his last nine. His efficiency has been stellar and he’s one of the strong three-point shooters on this team, averaging a 43.3% clip from beyond the arc this season. He’s second on the roster behind Cockburn in points per game and will likely get the green light whenever he has open space.

Trent Frazier, senior guard, 6-foot-2, 175 pounds — Another player that is a solid factor on both ends of the floor is Frazier. The experienced guard averages a team-high 31.6 minutes per game and he just about does it all for Illinois in the backcourt. He averages 11.1 points per game and he has the most steals on the team with 15. He’s a player that loves the big moments, and he scored a season-high 27 points and collected five steals against then-No. 11 Arizona back on Dec. 11. He has the second-most three-point attempts from three on the team and his percentage lies around 38%.

Strength

Rebounding. With one of the best centers in its arsenal, Illinois is always going to be a team that is strong with its overall rebounding totals. Coming into Thursday’s matchup, Illinois has a plus-14 rebounding margin. Cockburn, forward Coleman Hawkins and guard Da’Monte Williams do the bulk of the rebounding for the Fighting Illini. The Terps will have to pay extra attention to shots coming off the rim and the glass on the defensive end so that they don’t get burned by offensive rebounds.

Weakness

Turnovers. If there’s anything Maryland can do to force a potential upset, it would be to put the pressure on the Fighting Illini on defense. Illinois averages 15.2 turnovers per game, a fairly high number for a team filled with talent all over the floor. Opponents are averaging 7.9 steals per game against the Fighting Illini and Maryland might just find itself in transition quite often.

Three things to watch

1. How will Qudus Wahab and Julian Reese handle Kofi Cockburn? Cockburn will be the first truly elite interior presence that Maryland will take on this season to date. He’s one of the best players in the entire country and he can take control of a game single-handedly with his dominance in the paint. Maryland’s Wahab and Reese, who both stand a little shorter than Cockburn’s 7-foot frame, will be very busy on the defensive end. Both are solid defenders, but it will be interesting to see how Manning deploys his two top big men against one of the premier paint forces in the nation.

“For me it’s just matching his energy, you know,” Wahab said about the prospect of defending Cockburn. “I know he’s going to bring the energy tomorrow, so just matching his energy and intensity and trying to like deny him as much as I can from getting the ball and I know they’re going to be looking for him all game long.”

2. Will Maryland get any help from its bench? All five of Maryland’s starters scored in double figures in the loss to Illinois. The problem? The Terps’ scoring off the bench was basically nonexistent. Out of Maryland’s 75 total points, just six of them came from players that came off the bench. Players like Ian Martinez and Green need to step up to aid the starting five’s efforts. If not, Maryland will consistently fall victim to the depth that many Big Ten teams possess. Maryland’s depth scoring needs to get going or else it will struggle to beat or even keep it close with some of the top teams in the conference.

3. Can the Terps exhibit the same amount of grit they displayed against Iowa? It wasn’t really known how Maryland would handle some of the better teams in the Big Ten until it actually faced off in competition against them. Maryland held a lead against Iowa in the second half and if it weren’t for Murray’s heroics, then the Terps may very well have stolen a win from the Hawkeyes with how they played. Maryland will need to have the same amount of fight against an even better Illinois team that beat Iowa by four on the road on Dec. 6. It’s not going to be easy, but Maryland will have to find a way to keep it close with a borderline top-25 team once again.