No. 14 Maryland 81, Illinois 55
Usually, basketball programs love ESPN exposure. Illinois might ask the main network to stay away for awhile.
The Illini (13-17, 5-12 Big Ten) have now have been blown out by a combined 112 points in their last four ESPN games -- to three of the top-four Big Ten teams -- on the Worldwide Leader: 79-54 at Michigan State (Jan. 7), 103-69 at Indiana (Jan. 19), 74-47 to Indiana (Feb. 25) and 81-55 on Thursday at Maryland.
Maryland (24-6, 12-5 Big Ten) dominated in every fashion. The Terps out-shot the Illini from the floor and from three. They dominated the Illini in the paint (36 to 26 rebounds, 31 to 18 points in the paint) and on the perimeter (a season-best 14-for-25 from three to the Illini's 5-for-20 from three).
One Illini shined in the bright lights, though.
Maverick Morgan compiled a career-best game: his first career double-double with a career-high 21 points (10-for-13 FG) and a career-high 10 rebounds.
But the rest of the Illini shot 12-for-44 from the field (27.3 percent). Jalen Coleman-Lands had 11 points (4-for-11 FG), while Malcolm Hill added 10 points (5-for-12 FG). Kendrick Nunn had a season-low five points.
Four Maryland players scored in double figures: Melo Trimble (18 points), Jake Layman (18 points), Robert Carter Jr. (14 points) and Jared Nickens (14 points).
After failing to score the first 5:48 of the game, the Illini kept the game relatively close for most of the first half, closing to a 19-16 deficit before trailing 31-21 at halftime.
In the second half, the Illini showed some life, cutting a big deficit to 45-34 with 11:22 remaining. But Maryland outscored the Illini 29-9 over the next 7:13 to put the game far out of reach.
Illinois shot 38.6 percent on the game. Maryland shot 55.6 percent, including 18-for-27 in the second half (66.7 percent).
What it means
Maryland is just way more talented than Illinois. The Terps have size, athleticism, shooters and depth -- everything a team needs to be a conference contender and a team with potential to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini don't have enough size, athleticism or depth and their shooters didn't shoot well. Groce needs an infusion of talent to compete with the Big Ten's best. That's why there's a lot more focus on the future -- Class of 2016 point guard Te'Jon Lucas, transfer Kipper Nichols, injured and recently-arrested forward Leron Black and the 2017 recruiting class -- than the rest of this season.
What went right
Morgan's back will be sore tomorrow because he carried the Illini. I wondered after his Minnesota performance whether that was a breakout game or a flash in the pan. Morgan has answered that emphatically. In the last 11 games, Morgan has 124 points and 63 rebounds. The junior has taken a huge leap, and it's been one of the few bright spots of the season. On Thursday, Morgan had his best game, outplaying likely Big Ten Freshman of the Year Diamond Stone (four points, five rebounds).
The Illini defense came to play -- in the first half. They were focused and tough on that end of the court. And the Illini staff had a winning defensive game plan -- the same one they used to upset Purdue at home. The Illini doubled down on the post and forced Maryland to make jumpers. The Terps made too many of them, especially in the second half when the Illini defense let up a bit with the game out of hand.
What went wrong
Illinois' offensive game plan is a losing one. The Illini continue to lack purpose on offense. Groce runs a ball-screen offense, which relies on a penetrating, scoring-threat point guard. He doesn't have that. But the Illini haven't adjusted. The Illini are too easy to defend: too much dribbling, too much one-on-one, too little penetration (off the dribble or by the pass) and too few post touches that force the defense to collapse. Maryland's length further exposed those deficiencies.
Outside of Morgan and to a lesser extent Hill, the Illini forced some terrible shots -- including players who shouldn't be shooting all that much. Khalid Lewis-El forced a runner after no passes on a first-half possession with the Illini down five. D.J. Williams, not exactly a highly-skilled shooter, forced a fadeaway jumper in traffic. Jalen Coleman-Lands heat checks are acceptable when he's in rhythm, but even he forced a few too many jumprs when his feet weren't set.
Michael Finke (two points, 0-for-4 FG) is still mired in a forgettable funk during his first Big Ten season. With 7:23 left in the first half, the redshirt freshman went to the bench with three fouls and one turnover in four first-half minutes. Over his last nine games, he is averaging 3.0 points and is 11-for-45 (24.4 percent) from the floor. He averaged 10.3 points during nonconference play.
Nunn has scored in single digits in two of his last three games (eight points vs. Indiana) and three of his last seven. Short-handed Illinois just can't afford that. Same thing with Hill, who had just 10 points against Maryland and just five points against Indiana.
Illinois will stay in Maryland for another day and practice before heading to State College on Saturday in preparation for Sunday's regular-season finale at Penn State (11 a.m. tipoff). The Nittany Lions (15-14, 6-10 Big Ten) hosted Northwestern on Thursday night and have improved lately. PSU has won four of its last six, including wins over Indiana and Iowa. Pat Chambers' team almost always plays hard and tough. By now, Illinois should know games in Happy Valley aren't givens. The Illini have lost four of their last five at Bryce Jordan Center.