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No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball vs No. 20 Illinois preview (Part 2)

The Terps are headed back on the road, facing a ranked team away from home for the first time this season.

Jalen Smith, Illinois, Maryland men’s basketball Sarah Sopher / Testudo Times

It certainly wasn’t pretty, but with its 56-51 victory over Rutgers on Tuesday night, No. 9 Maryland men’s basketball has won five games in a row.

The Terps came from behind again at Xfinity Center, overcoming a halftime deficit and finally pulling away for good with just over two minutes remaining to stave off the upset and remain undefeated at home.

In a stretch where ranked teams are losing left and right, Maryland has held steady since the middle of January, skyrocketing up the AP Top 25 — it’s ascended to No. 9 after hitting a season-low 17th after the Wisconsin loss.

“It’s truly exciting,” sophomore guard Aaron Wiggins said. “We knew what we were capable of. We always knew we had the talent and we have the pieces to be a really good team.”

But the schedule won’t let up, as the Terps are in for yet another tough test, this time on the road. For the second time this season, Mark Turgeon’s team will face Illinois, now ranked No. 20 in the country after winning seven straight games — though the Fighting Illini lost last time out to Iowa.

It will be a battle for Big Ten supremacy at the State Farm Center, as Maryland and Illinois are currently deadlocked in a tie for first place in the conference with 8-3 records.

“We know it’s going to be a wild Friday night in Champaign,” Turgeon said. “It’s going to be an incredible building. Playing for first place. That’s the stuff that helps you, prepares you for everything that lies ahead.”

Friday’s tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

Here is the preview from the first time the two teams met.

What happened last time

Friday will be two months to the day from when the Terps and Fighting Illini first met. Back on Dec. 7, Illinois came to College Park to face then-No. 3-ranked Maryland to kick off Big Ten play.

And as highly touted as the Terps were entering the game, they were completely exposed for the vast majority of the game. After a Kofi Cockburn basket at the 18:21 mark of the first half, Illinois led for the next 38 minutes of game time.

By halftime, Maryland trailed by 14 points, its largest of the season to that point — and second-largest of the year currently, with only the blowout at Iowa topping it. And with under four and a half minutes to play, Turgeon’s team still trailed by nine.

“They were dialed in. They were ready for us and we weren’t quite ready for them,” Turgeon said. “They might have won that game if it was this time of year.”

But then the switch flipped in a flash. Jalen Smith scored five straight points to cut the deficit to four. And down three with less than 30 seconds remaining, Anthony Cowan Jr. had his signature moment of the season — and perhaps of his career.

The senior point guard finished with a game-high 20 points in the Terps’ 59-58 win over Illinois, adding in seven rebounds, six assists and three steals to push them over the hump. Smith poured in his sixth double-double of the season (he’s now at 13), scoring 14 points and adding 13 rebounds — six of which came on the offensive glass — and three blocks.

Trent Frazier led the way for Illinois, scoring 13 points with a pair of three-pointers. But Ayo Dosunmu — currently the team’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game — was kept under wraps, as he scored just nine on 4-of-12 shooting.

What’s happened since

After that stunning victory, the Terps hit their low-point of the season. They went on to play their first two true road games of the season to Penn State and Seton Hall, losing both and being outmatched from start to finish.

And while it rebounded with three straight victories against Bryant, Indiana and then-No. 11 Ohio State, all at home, Maryland went back on the road and lost two straight. The Terps first fell to Iowa — which remains the team’s worst performance of the year — and then to Wisconsin, a game in which they were leading with 15 seconds to play and had the ball.

Since losing four of seven, the Terps have been perfect, at least in the win column. They’ve won five straight by an average of 6.8 points per game, narrowly avoiding losses to Indiana and Rutgers while somewhat comfortably beating Purdue, Northwestern — their first true road game of the season — and Iowa.

Illinois, meanwhile, followed up its loss to Maryland with a convincing 71-62 victory over then-No. 5 Michigan, which served as the team’s coming out party. Brad Underwood’s team went 2-2 over the next four games, but after losing to then-No. 14 Michigan State on Jan. 2, it became an absolute force.

The Fighting Illini rattled off seven straight victories, three of which came on the road — which is almost unheard of in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten this season.

“They’ve changed dramatically since that last game [against us],” Turgeon said. “It’s tough because they have so many good players. ... They’re much more confident than they were in this building.”

And they were able to win in a variety of ways, whether it was by blowout — like the two wins over Purdue — or a tight last-minute affair — like a one-point victory against Wisconsin in Madison or a two-point win over Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But last time out, the massive winning streak was snapped in Iowa City, Iowa against the Hawkeyes. Illinois had a 59-55 lead with just over five minutes to play, but Luka Garza and CJ Frederick pulled out the win for Iowa late.

Three things to watch

1. Who wins the battle inside? It’s hard to imagine that a 14-point performance could be an example of a “quieter” game for a sophomore, but that’s exactly what happened back on Dec. 7. Since the middle of January, Smith has been utterly unstoppable — he’s averaging 20.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game over the team’s last five contests.

Freshman center Cockburn has both a height (7’0) and weight (290 lbs) advantage over Smith, but the Terp has overcome such challenges before this season, namely against Luka Garza on Jan. 30. If Smith is able to dominate on Friday as he has of late, Illinois could be in big trouble.

“I know what I’m capable of doing and my team knows what I’m capable of doing,” Smith said. “There’s a lot more to it, but I know that my matchup against him is going to be one of the big [keys to the game].

2. Will Ayo Dosunmu struggle again? The sophomore guard has been Illinois’ leader for most of the season both in scoring and facilitating, as he’s averaging 15.8 points — on an impressive 48.4 percent shooting clip — and 3.4 assists per game on the year. But against Maryland the first time around, he had just nine points while going 4-of-12 from the field, being stymied by the Terps’ defense, primarily led by Darryl Morsell.

As Dosunmu has gone, so have the Fighting Illini. And if Morsell and/or Wiggins can keep him under wraps once again, Illinois will have to turn to other scorers to keep the offense running.

“He’s a really good player in transition,” Wiggins said. “So making sure that we all know where he’s at — on a missed shot or a turnover — knowing where he’s at so he can’t get downhill, he can’t create plays for his teammates.”

3. How important does this game become in the standings? As alluded to earlier, both Maryland and Illinois are tied atop the standings with an 8-3 conference record. And since the Terps already have a win over the Fighting Illini, a win Friday would give them a huge leg up in finishing ahead of the latter come the Big Ten tournament seeding. Also, this would be Maryland’s first road win against a ranked opponent, which is very important for NET rankings and a potential NCAA Tournament seeding.

But if Illinois pulls it out, Maryland not only falls behind in the standings, it would lose its potential tiebreaker advantage. Of course, with two games remaining against Michigan State, this could end up having much less significance as February rolls on.


Vegas: Illinois -3, O/U 127 (as of Friday morning)

ESPN BPI: Maryland 43.0% chance to win

KenPom: Illinois 66, Maryland 65 (Maryland 47% chance to win)

Me: Illinois 71, Maryland 65