The Maryland men's basketball team is in Mexico this week for the Cancun Challenge, a two-day tournament also featuring Illinois State, Rhode Island and TCU. For the Terps to get a crack at either Rhode Island or TCU, they'll first have to get past Illinois State, which comes from the Missouri Valley Conference but isn't at all a run-of-the-mill cupcake.
The Redbirds haven't been to an NCAA Tournament in a while - not since 1998, in fact. But they finished No. 52 last year in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, when they, ahem, shocked Wichita State for a 3-point win in the conference tournament. The year before that, the Redbirds beat Dayton and Texas A&M. So they've already beaten the other schools Mark Turgeon has coached at, and they'll try to make it a trifecta against the Terps on Tuesday night.
The game tips at 8:30 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network. Maryland either has a championship or consolation Wednesday. Maryland's bookending home games for this trip – against Rider on Friday and Cleveland State on Nov. 28 – are also technically part of the Cancun event.
Illinois State Redbirds (2-2)
Dan Muller. 58-44, in his fourth season at Illinois State. No NCAA Tournament bids. Averaged 12 points for the Redbirds over a three-season playing career from 1995 to 1998.
Players to know
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, senior, guard, 6'5, No. 44. By far the team's leading scorer so far at 17 points per game, Purcell is a veteran threat for the Redbirds. His rebound totals are down through four games this year, but he averaged 13 and 6 last year, and he has one of the team's better-rounded statistical profiles. Akoon-Purcell transferred to ISU from junior college before last season.
Paris Lee, junior, guard, 6'0, No. 1. Lee, the point guard, averages 10 points and 5 assists so far this year. He isn't big, and in the past he was reticent to get involved in the Redbirds' offense. This season, his possession usage rate is up from a tiny 16 percent to a much more authoritative 23 percent. He gets to the foul line a little bit, and he shot 94 percent from there during MVC play last season.
Deontae Hawkins, sophomore, forward, 6'8, No. 23. Averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds so far, Hawkins is neck-and-neck with Lee as the team's No. 2 scoring option behind Akoon-Purcell. He's big, but he's not afraid to chuck up 3-pointers (about 4 per game), and he connects on one in three of them.
Roland Griffin, freshman, forward, 6'7, No. 35. As a freshman, Griffin is averaging 7.5 points and 4 rebounds out of the Redbirds' frontcourt. We've never seen him play, but he's getting 24 minutes per night and will have to play big against Maryland's forwards.
Steals. The Redbirds have been pressuring the ball hard in their first four games, forcing turnovers on a full 26 percent of opponents' possessions. This is something to watch, especially since Maryland can't afford to overwork ball-handling guards Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon because they need to play two games in two days.
Depth. We can't attest to the up-and-down skill of Illinois State's rotation, but Muller runs an 11-man rotation that should keep his players' legs reasonably fresh all evening.
Foul shooting. Or, maybe. The Redbirds are 51 of 93 (55 percent) on free throws this year, which is brutal but not totally indicative of their past. They shot 74 percent last year, although they lost 86 percent leading foul shooter Daishon Knight. So this could be a liability, or it could normalize with more time. Maryland hopes for the former.
Perimeter offense. The Redbirds don't care much for the triple. Only 29 percent of their shots from the field have been 3-pointers, compared to a national average of about 36 percent. They were 3 percent off the national pace last year, a big departure from their trigger-happy 41 percent clip in 2013-14. They make 34 percent of the threes they take, but they don't seem comfortable taking many of them.
KenPom's prediction: Maryland 72-64.
Alex's prediction: Maryland, 74-63.