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Small lineups sparked life into Maryland basketball’s offense against Illinois

Missing its best centers, Maryland had to go small. It worked.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Maryland Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball won its most lopsided game of the season over Illinois, 84-59, without its starting and backup centers. Injuries to the big men should’ve spelled disaster. But without them, the Terps were able to push the tempo and focus on their talented backcourt.

For Maryland to find success, the Terps need to run after securing rebounds and weave through defenders in half court sets, and that hadn’t happened consistently until Tuesday night. Melo Trimble is one of the most creative finishers in the game; Anthony Cowan is one of the quickest players in the country. Shooting threats like Kevin Huerter, Jaylen Brantley, Dion Wiley and Justin Jackson should make it easy for the guards to spread the floor.

Using these players to their full strength isn’t always as easy with Damonte Dodd or Michal Cekovsky clogging the lane. But with the pair sidelined by injury, Maryland ran its most fluent offensive game of the season.

That isn’t to say Dodd and Cekovsky aren’t good or should ride the bench when they get healthy. Both are important players for a team that's still figuring out how to fit everyone together alongside Trimble. The Terps lucked out behind a standout performance from previously irrelevant grad transfer L.G. Gill on Tuesday, and that kind of performance shouldn’t be expected on a nightly basis. But it couldn’t be any more clear that running small is the way to go with this guard-heavy unit.

“We were faster, and speed wins,” said Brantley after the win. “I think that was an advantage for us, playing small, and I think if we keep rebounding coach will keep playing us.”

With Gill filtering out of the paint, the lane stayed clear for Trimble, Cowan and Brantley to attack the basket as the Terps were able to sink a number of layups around the rim, and the team raked in 48 points in the paint.

Maryland made 26 of 38 two-point attempts against Illinois, good for an outrageous 68 percent shooting. That’s 17 percent better than the team’s regular season average. Not only did lay-ins comes easier, so did elbow jumpers, where Trimble made a living after shaking his initial defenders. With Gill playing on the outside, a second line of defense was missing and Trimble swished a few gimmes. Maryland was a plus-20 with Gill on the floor.

Cowan and Trimble had excellent pick-and-roll chemistry with Gill and Ivan Bender, and assisted six of the centers’ buckets. Cowan had a special chemistry with Bender, who he assisted to on all three of his made baskets. In this style of fast-paced, guard-focused play, Cowan had one of his best showings as a play-making guard.

This pace isn’t always possible when Dodd or Cekovsky are on the floor. Dodd’s offense mainly consists of put-backs and easy dunks, while a portion of Cekovsky’s scoring has come as a back-to-the-basket big. The Slovakian had substantial success barreling through the low post with newfound strength, knocking down 68 percent of tries, and Maryland should keep him in this role. But Mark Turgeon will have to manage Cekovksy’s minutes — and his role — properly to not waste the slashing talents around him. Tuesday night’s Illini beatdown should give the coach a new perspective of his team, and a rotational change wouldn’t be surprising.

Maryland was able to efficiently maintain a large lead without shooting well, which showed just how good this team can play on any given night. The Terps only connected on seven of 21 tries from deep. There’s room to improve from here. If Turgeon can budget his team’s minutes correctly, Maryland can be a better team than we imagined a month ago. Going small sparked life into the team’s deep backcourt.