PREVIEW: Illinois at Maryland

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' Big Ten opener at Maryland on Tuesday.

Illinois (10-3, 0-0) at

Maryland (12-1, 0-0)

Date & Time: Dec. 27, 4 p.m. CT

Location: XFINITY Center (College Park, Md.)

TV: ESPN2

Quick Hits

  • Illinois is on a six-game winning streak, which is their longest entering conference play since 2008-09.
  • The Illini haven't won seven in a row since the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
  • Illinois will look to snap a four-game losing streak on the road -- dating back to last season.
  • The Illini are 11-25 on the road in the Big Ten under John Groce.
  • Illinois has won 12 of their last 17 Big Ten openers.
  • This will be the first true road game of the season for the Illini.
  • Maryland is 6-5 all-time against the Illini, and they won 81-55 in the last meeting in March 2016.
  • The Terps are 3-1 against Illinois in College Park.
  • Maryland is 17-1 at home in Big Ten play entering their third season in the league.
  • Mark Turgeon became the fastest coach to reach 20 career Big Ten wins since Bruce Weber did it at Illinois in just 23 games.

Projected Starters

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams played just 13 minutes and fouled out with three points, three turnovers and no assists against Missouri last Wednesday. He's shot just 36.8 percent over the last two games with three giveaways in each game. But he is still averaging 11.9 points per game with a 59.2 percent mark from long range.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands had 12 points with a pair of threes in the Braggin' Rights win last week. He still hovers significantly below his three-point mark from last year -- dropping from 42.2 percent to 36 percent. But he has scored in double figures in four of the last six games, and that's included plays inside the arc.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill posted a game-high 21 points with five rebounds and two assists in the win against Mizzou. He leads the Illini with 18.4 points per game, which is third in the Big Ten. He is also second on the team in rebounds per game (6.3), second in steals (12) and third in assists per game (2.2), while shooting 41.8 percent from three -- the second best mark on the Illini.

Leron Black (R-SO): After going on a tear in his first seven games, Black has cooled off in the last two. He has been limited by foul trouble, as he's posted four points (2-5), 10 rebounds and eight fouls in 33 combined minutes against BYU and Missouri. He is still averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on the season, and he is an absolute X-factor in Big Ten play.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne hit four of his five field goal attempts for eight points in 16 minutes against Missouri. He has been extremely efficient in the post, as he has made 30 of his last 43 attempts from the field (69.7 percent). But his rebounding numbers are down with just one game over four rebounds in the last seven contests, and he had none against Mizzou.

Bench

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan has been off the charts in the last two games with back to back double-doubles against BYU and Missouri. He had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the Braggin' Rights game, including a huge offensive rebound late. He has three career double-doubles -- the other coming at Maryland last year with a career-high 21 points and 10 rebounds.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Like it or not, Tate has played fairly well in his solidified role over the last three games. He had five points, six assists and one turnover in 30 minutes in the Braggin' Rights game. He's posted 16 assists and four turnover combined in the last three contests. Tate is still a major liability as a scorer on the perimeter, but he has done some good things.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke has broken out of his shooting slump by going 4-of-7 from the field combined in games against BYU and Missouri, including three treys. He hit a big pick 'n pop three late in the Braggin' Rights game. Finke has also been good on the glass with 19 rebounds in the last three games combined. The Illini need him to keep it up.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams played six minutes in the Braggin' Rights game and he hit a three from the corner. He has gotten minutes in the last four contests, and he's scored at least one field goal in each. But in three of those games, Williams went without a rebound. To have a bigger role, Williams needs to rebound and defend consistently.

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas was scoreless in three minutes of action against Missouri after sitting the bench in the previous two games. It is clear that Tate has far more trust as the backup point guard. Lucas needs to stay ready, though.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols did not play against Missouri after playing just one minute against BYU. With Groce's rotation already pretty well established, Nichols will need to be patient and opportunistic when his time comes.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan has not played at all during each of the last three games. He is shooting 37.5 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three on the season, and his last bucket came against Florida State on Nov. 25.

Maryland Starters

Anthony Cowan (FR): Cowan has given the Terps a nice lift as a freshman being one of two point guards on the floor. He is averaging 10.6 points and 3.8 assists per game, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field. Known as a sharpshooter coming out of high school, Cowan struggled mightily with his stroke to start the year but he's hit six of his last 10 attempts from deep.

Melo Trimble (JR): Trimble leads Maryland with 17.9 points per game, which is fifth in the Big Ten. He has scored 20-plus in seven of his team's 13 games this year, including 23 and 21 in the last two games respectively. Trimble is one of the most dangerous guards in the Big Ten with his ability to drive, dish, shoot and get to the free-throw line.

Kevin Huerter (FR): The 6-foot-7 freshman wing is averaging 7.2 points and five rebounds per game this season, while shooting 32.1 percent from three. He's hit at least two threes in eight of Maryland's 13 games.

Justin Jackson (FR): Jackson has been one of the most productive freshmen in the Big Ten with 10.8 points and a team-leading six rebounds per game. The former Illini target is long and very skilled with some athleticism to boot. He creates problems for the defense with his ability to play inside and out, and he's shooting a team-high 46.3 percent from deep.

Michal Cekovsky (JR): Cekovsky has been the starter at the five in the absence of Damonte Dodd, who has been out with a sprained MCL. The 7-foot-1 junior is averaging 10 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He is an efficient scorer down low at 67.8 percent.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. B1G time for big-time players. This game possesses some star power with two of the top five scorers in the conference squaring off with Hill and Trimble. Both players have high usage rates, and their teams will largely go as they go this season. Which star can give his team more on Tuesday? Cowan playing with Trimble in a two-point guard system has taken some pressure off of Trimble -- allowing him to get some more open looks. He has an improved mark from three at 36.1 percent, and he's hit eight of his last 12 attempts over the last three games. Trimble posted 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists against Illinois last season. Hill was far less effective in that meeting, and he has to be far better this time around. He has needed to step up time and again already this season, and that will be the case throughout Big Ten play. Hill has scored at least 20 points in five of his last seven Big Ten road games. How will he start his final run through the league? If the Illini win this head-to-head battle, they should be in a good spot.

2. Which defense shows up? Illinois has played against some very talented guards this season, and they have seen mixed results. The Illini kept Dennis Smith Jr. without a field goal in the second half against N.C. State. They limited Central Michigan's attack with the nation's leading scorer, Marcus Keene. On the flip side, Illinois got exposed by Keon Johnson in their upset loss to Winthrop. They let West Virginia's guards get whatever they wanted. How will the Illini do against Trimble and Cowan? Both guards use the ball-screen to drive and they're good at drawing contact. Trimble has some nice numbers from three, but he went just 4-of-20 against high-major opponents in the nonconference. Illinois would probably like to keep him out of the lane first and foremost, and zone has been good to the Illini. But Maryland does like to take the three, as more than 43 percent of their field goal attempts are from deep. Illinois will have to weigh that, and they'll need Black to be better defensively -- not only to stay on the floor -- but to match up with Jackson. The Illini stymied a very talented Maryland offense by mixing man and zone in an upset win at the State Farm Center in 2015, which held Trimble and the Terps under 60 points. This Illinois team probably can't manage that, but they'll need to execute at that end.

3. Bench mob. Groce continues to say that his team has strength in numbers. Going into the season, that was one advantage he pointed to in beating opponents who couldn't match their depth. This is a great time for that to show. Maryland has a decent bench, but with Dodd likely out and Dion Wiley back but likely limited with a sprained wrist, they could be running short. And if Dodd is sidelined again, that gives Illinois a significant size advantage as a unit. The Illini need Morgan to continue to be huge off the bench. He can be a difference-maker if he's able to maintain his recent production with down-low scoring and rebounding effort. Finke's contributions are vital as well. And Tate must keep the offense flowing with minimal mistakes and stagnation. He may be counted on to play more minutes with the Terps rolling out two point guards. Any additional contributions from Lucas, Williams or others would be an added bonus. Overall, the second unit can give the Illini the boost they need in this road test.

Prediction

This is the first of four big opportunities on the road for the Illini in a tough seven-game stretch to start conference play. Maryland is currently No. 22 in the RPI, and that's a win you want to put on your resume. The recent history numbers don't stack up in Illinois' favor. Groce's win percentage on the road in the Big Ten is 30.6 percent, and the last road win of note was at Michigan State in February 2015. The only Big Ten team to stroll into College Park and win over the last two seasons was Wisconsin. But this is a new season with different dynamics, especially with four new starters for the Terps. Illinois has been far from perfect this season, but so has Maryland. They don't have any guaranteed tournament wins on their resume. They beat Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Georgetown by one point each. They also took Richmond (No. 203 in RPI) to overtime, and squeaked by Towson. This has the makings of a fair fight, and Illinois is very capable of getting a win.

Illinois 72, Maryland 68


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