Maryland Men’s Basketball (18-4, 8-3 B1G) has an opportunity to claim sole possession of first place in the conference with a win over No. 20 Illinois (16-6, 8-3 B1G) Friday at the State Farm Center in Champaign.
Last time both teams faced off at the Xfinity Center on Dec. 7, Maryland pulled out a gutsy 59-58 comeback win, leading for only 27 seconds. Senior Anthony Cowan Jr. led the Terps in that contest with 20 points and a clutch game-tying three with less than 30 seconds remaining. Cowan’s late-game heroics saved Maryland after the Terps struggled mightily in the opening 20 minutes, and trailed by 14 at halftime.
However, this time around, both teams are much improved and playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Terps are currently on a five-game winning streak, fueled by excellent defense and better ball movement offensively. Over that stretch, standout center Jalen Smith has been phenomenal, averaging 20.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. “Stix” is coming off a career-high six-block performance against Rutgers on Tuesday, quickly emerging as one of the premier shot blocks in the country.
“My confidence is at an all-time high,” Jalen Smith said. “Coach has been helping me with that and just making sure I keep the right mind going into every game.”
Facing off against the Fighting Illini, he has another tough challenge lying ahead, facing off against the imposing duo of Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. In the first game, “Stix” had three blocks, consistently fronting the post and altering shots.
“Jalen has always been a really good shot blocker, it’s discipline,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s staying down on shot fakes and that’s hard to do, especially when the guy is a foot from the basket.”
While it possesses great talent down low, Illinois also has great guard talent. The backcourt duo of Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu is one of the best in the conference and also one of the quickest. Frazier is one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference, while Dosunmu has been excellent recently, averaging 16.8 ppg and 4.8 apg in his last five games. In the first meeting, Maryland’s defense performed well against Dosunmu, limiting him to just nine points on 33 percent shooting.
The biggest key for Maryland on Friday night will be playing a consistent 40 minutes in a hostile atmosphere. Playing on the road, the Terps can’t afford to turn the ball over or start slowly, allowing the Fighting Illini faithful to get energized early on.
“Transition defense is huge, ball screen defense is huge,” Turgeon said. “You can’t have live ball turnovers; you have to be really good with the ball.”
After the last meeting, several Terps credited the home crowd for providing them heightened energy to comeback. Friday night, the Terps won’t have the same luxury and an early deficit could potentially be catastrophic. In order to avoid a slow start, Maryland needs to get its best players going early, notably Cowan and Jalen Smith.
With Illinois head coach Brad Underwood expected to plan for both players, other Terps will need to step up including Darryl Morsell, and the guard tandem of Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. Ayala is coming off his first scoreless game of this season but continued to put in extra work coming out onto the court after Tuesday’s win to put up more shots.
From the opening whistle Friday night’s battle for first place will be a dogfight, showcasing some of the best talent the Big Ten Conference has to offer. The game is scheduled to tip-off at 8 p.m. and will air on FS1.
“It’s really exciting, we knew what we were capable of,” Wiggins said. “We always knew that we had the talent and we had the pieces to be a really good team.”