Maryland men’s basketball heads to Champaign to face No. 12 Illinois in hopes to avoid slipping below .500

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

If it wasn’t already clear, the Terps are playing small in a big league. And despite their best efforts, they still haven’t been able to ameliorate their struggles down low. Maryland (6-6, 1-5 B1G), however, does have another shot at defending a pair of low post tacticians in Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn at Illinois (9-3, 5-1 B1G), but it won’t be easy. 

“It’s not a good year to be small,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Normally we’re big and long and athletic around the rim, but we’re not this year.”

Bezhanishvili has been having a stellar season averaging an efficient 6 points off off the bench for the Illini, but it’s likely Cockburn will be getting the bulk of the team’s paint touches. 

And given his track record this season — he will deliver. The Jamaican native averages 17 points and 10 rebounds, making him the only player in the league averaging a double-double. Cockburn is also a stout low post defender, averaging 1.5 blocks per contest. 

“There’s not too many humans on earth like [Cockburn] and are that skilled,” Turgeon said. “Especially for this year’s team it’s a load for us.”

Cockburn brings a formidable combination of size and strength that even some of the most disciplined and well-equipped teams have a difficult time guarding. But with his dependence on size and strength, comes a significant lack of polished skills. 

Cockburn’s inability to stretch the floor with a jump shot coupled with his abysmal free throw shooting makes him a liability if Maryland can deny him shots in the paint and get him in foul trouble. But even then, Cockburn can also be effective in transition, particularly when he’s on the receiving end of lob passes. Several Illini guards are capable of feeding him around the rim, but Ayo Dosunmu tends to be the one making the connection on fast breaks. 

“[Dosunmu] just knows how to play basketball,” senior Darryl Morsell said. “He gets to his spots, makes shots, he’s quick, he can go downhill, he’s a great finisher.”

On the eye test, it’s clear Dosunmu is the most complete offensive guard in the Big Ten. But his offensive prowess shows up on the stat sheet too. As a game manager, Dosunmu averages 5 assists a game and can create shots for his teammates and himself. As an offensive threat, the Chicago native averages 22 points per contest while shooting 51% from the field and 42% from three. 

The Illini also possess a set of backcourt running mates that complement the skills of Dosunmu and Cockburn. Guards Trent Friazier and Da’Monte Williams are talented shooters behind the arc and capable perimeter defenders, while Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller provide point guard depth and playmaking ability for small-ball lineups.

After facing an Iowa team that is very similar in structure, one can hope that Maryland can adjust from its last outing and compete against Illinois. The strategy used in the first 8 minutes against Iowa serves as a perfect example of what Maryland should look to bring for 40 minutes against the Illini. 

If Maryland can harass Cockburn down low with smart double teams and bring an aggressive brand of perimeter defense, great results will follow. Solid defensive minutes from Chol Marial, who Turgeon says will play, can also improve Maryland’s chances of stifling the Illini, especially if he can rebound. 

The Terps just have to avoid getting discouraged from both missed shots and turnovers, ensuring that they don’t allow bad offense to affect their defense. Maryland fell victim to this against Iowa and will suffer a similar fate in Champaign if they can’t adjust. Maryland has to capture offense through their defense if they want to avoid dipping below .500. 

Tip off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. and the game will air on BTN.

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