No. 22 Maryland men’s basketball has its toughest test of the season this Friday night against No. 16 Illinois in College Park. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. and will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.
Maryland is entering the top-25 matchup with a perfect 7-0 record, destroying teams by an average margin of 21.9 points. With intense defense and a free flowing offense, head coach Kevin Willard’s group looks impressive and has already surpassed expectations for this season.
Friday night’s game is one of the most highly anticipated games in recent memory, certainly since the pandemic hit in 2020. The XFINITY Center is sure to be packed and rocking with Maryland Athletics announcing that the student section is completely sold out.
Let’s take a look at a worthy opponent Maryland hosts on Friday to open up Big Ten play.
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-1, 0-0 Big Ten)
Since head coach Brad Underwood took over in 2017, Illinois has re-emerged as a perennial contender in the Big Ten, and this year is no different. Underwood was forced to reload his roster following last season, but successfully did that through the transfer portal.
Illinois has just one loss and some impressive wins to earn its ranking as a top-20 team. Its most notable wins are over No. 21 UCLA (then No. 8) and Syracuse with its one loss coming to No. 3 Virginia (then No. 16).
Players to know
Terrence Shannon Jr., senior guard, 6-foot-6, No. 0 — Shannon is “the guy” for Illinois and has emerged into a legit superstar. He is by far the leading scorer for the Fighting Illini, averaging 19.9 points per game and shooting 43% from beyond the arc. He is a three-level scorer and can create at will. It will likely be Hakim Hart matched on to him for Maryland and he will have his hands full all game.
Jayden Epps, freshman guard, 6-foot-2, No. 3 — Epps is another prolific scorer for Illinois and has made his impact felt in his first year at Illinois. He’s also a player that can score in a variety of ways and shoots at a high clip from the outside. He’s been inconsistent at times this season, but that’s to be expected from someone in his first year.
Dain Dainja, redshirt sophomore forward, 6-foot-9, No. 42 — Dainja is a strong, physical forward who has a huge presence on the inside for Illinois on both ends of the floor. He has 10 blocks on the season and averages 11.6 points per game. Dainja has been held in check offensively in his last three games, all of which he finished in single digits after scoring in double figures the previous four.
Pace. Illinois plays fast and with a ton of pace offensively, similar to Maryland. The Fighting Illini average 83 points per game and are shooting the ball 48.5% from the field this season. Illinois is at its best when its getting out in transition and shooting a ton of threes. If it can control the tempo more than Maryland, it will have success.
Turnovers. A fast-paced style can produce some messy results, and that has led to Illinois struggling to take care of the basketball at times this season. The Fighting Illini commit 15 turnovers a game. Maryland may try to exploit that by pressing and forcing Illinois’ backcourt into difficult spots.
Three things to watch
1. The atmosphere. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the hardship Maryland’s program experienced last year, it has been a long time since it felt like a huge game was held at the XFINTY Center. But that will change Friday night when Illinois opens Big Ten play against Maryland in a ranked matchup. There is a ton of enthusiasm surrounding the game and the expectation is it will be a packed venue and an electric atmosphere for the first time in a few years at Maryland.
2. A big test for Julian Reese. The jump Julian Reese has made from last season to this one is evident through the first seven games. He looks more comfortable and physical on both ends of the floor, but he has not played many quality bigs this season. Illinois’ frontcourt will present a big challenge for Reese and it will be interesting to see how he responds in his toughest test of the season so far.
3. How will Maryland look in a close game? When Willard was asked about Maryland’s ability to get out to leads early and run away with the game, he praised his groups efforts but was quick to point out that surely will not continue. He is probably right. As the competition heats up, it will be tough to be as dominant as the Terps have been for all 40 minutes. Fans will find out a lot about this team when it is forced to play a close game, or even with a deficit.