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Maryland basketball vs. Illinois preview

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The Terps are still looking for an early-December conference win.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In Maryland’s Big Ten opener against Purdue on Friday night, the Terps fell to Purdue 80-75, pushing their record to 6-3.

The Big Ten changed its schedule this year to fit the conference tournament in at Madison Square Garden, so the Boilermakers came to College Park on Dec. 1. Purdue had multiple big leads, including a 38-24 one before the Terps closed the half strong. The second half saw Maryland cut a deficit as well. The Terps got the ball with 34 seconds left down 78-75, but Jared Nickens couldn’t hit the game-tying three pointer. P.J. Thompson’s free throws effectively ended the game, giving the Terps their third loss of the season.

The team will now find itself in Champaign for another conference matchup with Illinois. The Illini are 6-2 on the season, with those two losses coming in its most recent games to Wake Forest and Northwestern.

The teams will face off at 8 p.m. ET on BTN.

Illinois Fighting Illini (6-2)

2016-17 record: 20-15 (8-10 B1G)

Head coach Brad Underwood is in his first season at Illinois after a short one year stint at Oklahoma State that saw the Cowboys go 20-13 and make the NCAA Tournament—they lost in the first round to Michigan. Before that, Underwood was in charge at Stephen F. Austin of the Southland Conference.

Players to know

Leron Black, junior, forward, 6’7, No. 12. Black is actually in his fourth season with the team, as he redshirted his freshman year. That experience has paid off for him, as his 14.3 points per game lead the team. He’s also the Illini’s leading rebounder, making him arguably the most important player on the team.

Aaron Jordan, junior, guard, 6’5, No. 23. He’s Illinois’ second-leading scorer, and that’s due to his tremendous three-point shooting. Jordan shoots an absurd 66.7 percent from deep, which leads the nation. It’ll be a tall task for Maryland’s perimeter defenders to contain him, and if they don’t, it could be disastrous.

Michael Finke, junior, forward, 6’10, No. 43. One of five players averaging 10+ points per game, Finke is Illinois’ best presence down low. His tall frame allows him to score efficiently and effectively in the post, which is the reason for his .531 field goal percentage.

Strength

Turnover differential. Underwood does a great job of instilling the idea of ball control into his teams, and that’s evident as ever this season. The Illini commit 14 turnovers per game, which is a very mediocre number. However, they do well enough defensively to give them a plus-5.6 turnover margin, good for 14th in the nation.

Weakness

Defensive rebounds. Illinois doesn’t have a ton of height in its rotation, but that doesn’t excuse the Illini’s subpar rebounding numbers on defense. An average of 23.88 ranks them 11th among Big Ten teams and No. 259 in the country.

Three things to watch

1. Who will stop a losing streak? Syracuse and Purdue both took care of business against Maryland, which has the Terps in the midst of a two-game skid. The same goes for Illinois, as it followed up a defeat to Wake Forest by falling to Northwestern in double overtime. Both teams have tournament aspirations, and staving off a large losing streak is necessary to have a quality resume.

2. Can Maryland keep up with a strong conference opponent? Although they kept it close with Purdue near the end, the Terps were outclassed for most of the night. Turgeon’s group lost to St. Bonaventure of the Atlantic 10, so it’s unknown whether they have what it takes to hang with Illinois and other Big Ten foes. This is their last conference matchup until Jan. 3, so a victory is essential to keep from falling behind.

3. What is wrong with Justin Jackson? Now entering the 10th game of the season, it’s been too long for him to simply be shaking off the offseason rust. Jackson’s shooting has been atrocious thus far, as evidenced by his .338 percentage on field goals and .226 mark on threes. In Maryland’s last two games, he’s scored just 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting. If the Terps want any shot at competing, they need better contributions from the sophomore.

Prediction

Kenpom: Maryland, 76-72.

Me: Illinois, 79-76.