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Maryland basketball vs. Illinois preview

The Terps battle the Illini for a “home” game at Madison Square Garden.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland basketball is headed to New York, as the No. 13 Terps take on Illinois at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon.

The Terps are coming off a 69-55 loss to No. 6 Michigan State on Monday, which snapped their seven-game winning streak and dropped them to 7-2 in the Big Ten. The Spartans bullied the Terps all night, limiting Maryland inside and holding Anthony Cowan Jr. to a season-low seven points. But Mark Turgeon’s team is still in solid position in the Big Ten, sitting in third place.

Illinois is better than its record suggests, although it’d be hard to be much worse. The Illini are 5-14, struggling through a difficult nonconference schedule and starting 1-7 in Big Ten play. It’s a young team that’s clearly a few years away from reaching its potential, but there’s enough talent on the roster to give good teams a run. Just ask Minnesota, who was on the wrong end of a 27-point romp in Champaign on Jan. 16.

Saturday’s contest is technically a “home” game for the Terps, and tipoff is scheduled for noon ET on BTN. It’s part of “Big Ten Super Saturday,” as Michigan and Penn State will battle on the hockey rink at 7 p.m. ET.

Illinois Fighting Illini (5-14, 1-7 Big Ten)

2017-18 record: 14-18, 4-14

Head coach Brad Underwood took the Illini job two years ago after coaching two seasons at Oklahoma State (and four at Stephen F. Austin before that). He knew he was facing an uphill battle when he came to Champaign, and he’s just 19-32 so far. But the three players listed below all figure to be together for a while, so there’s reason for Illinois fans to hope they’ll be on their way out of the Big Ten cellar soon.

Players to know

Trent Frazier, sophomore, guard, 6’1/170, No. 1. The former four-star point guard has been an impact player ever since arriving on campus. Frazier led all Big Ten freshmen in scoring last season with 12.5 points per game, and he’s upped his average to a team-high 14.3 this year. He also chips in 2.8 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals.

Ayo Dosunmu, freshman, guard, 6’5/185, No. 11. Dosunmu was the No. 32 overall player in the Class of 2018 and a five-star prospect according multiple recruiting services. He’s started 18 games and posted averages of 13.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals. He had a hot stretch from Dec. 29 to Jan. 16, averaging 21 points over five games, but Dosunmu has scored just 15 and eight in his last two outings.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, freshman, forward, 6’9/235, No. 15. Bezhanishvili was born and raised in Georgia, moved to Austria at age 14 and played his high school senior season in New Jersey. He’s found his footing at the collegiate level, averaging 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest. Bezhanishvili is Illinois’ de facto center, so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles Maryland stalwart Bruno Fernando.

Four other Illini—Aaron Jordan, Kipper Nichols, Andres Feliz and Da’Monte Williams—average over 20 minutes a game, but the rotation drops off significantly after that.

Strength

Forcing turnovers. Illinois forces 17.3 turnovers per game, the 15th-highest total in the country. Their turnover rate of 23.6 percent ranks 12th, and their steal rate of 10.8 percent ranks 56th. Frazier and Dosunmu combine to average over three steals a night, and if Maryland gets careless, they could pick plenty of pockets.

Weakness

Defense other than forcing turnovers. If you can hang onto the ball against this team, you’ve got a good chance of scoring. Opponents are shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from deep, and perhaps most astonishingly, teams shoot an average of 24.8 free throws per game against Illinois. (The Illini themselves take just 16.4 foul shots per game.)

Three things to watch

1. How does Maryland start? The Terps will be playing for the first time in five days, their longest layoff since the seven-day break over Christmas. Even when things were going well, Maryland often put itself in somewhat of a hole early in the game. Illinois probably can’t make the Terps pay for a slow start like Michigan State did, but if Maryland takes control of the game early, it might be able to keep it for a while.

2. Does Anthony Cowan get going? The answer to this question has been yes in almost every game this year, but it didn’t happen against Michigan State. Cowan finished with just seven points on 3-of-12 shooting, and the individual second-half surge never came. Maryland needs him to perform at a high level if it wants to keep winning games, and the sooner he can find a rhythm on Saturday, the better.

3. Can Illinois contain the Terps inside? The Illini do have two 7’0 centers on the fringes of their rotation, but in the top seven, Bezhanishvili is the only one who could be considered a “big man.” More often than not this season, Maryland has controlled the boards and gotten Fernando going in the post. It’ll take a well-rounded effort led by Bezhanishvili to slow down the duo of Fernando and Jalen Smith.

Predictions

KenPom: Maryland 78, Illinois 69

Me: Maryland 76, Illinois 61