Preview: Maryland Basketball Set for First Ranked Matchup of the Season

#16 Illinois vs. #22 Maryland

When: Friday, December 2 at 9 PM

Radio: 105.7 (Baltimore), 980 AM (DC); Johnny Holiday (pxp), Chris Knoche (analyst), Walt Williams (analyst)

TV: BTN; Brandon Gaudin (pxp), Robbie Hummel (analyst)

After taking care of business in its first road game of the season, Maryland basketball returns to action on Friday night for their first ranked matchup in what’s expected to be a packed Xfinity Center. While this will be Willard’s first meeting against Illinois, Maryland has won the last four against the Illini and leads the all-time series 13-7. We take a look at what to watch on Friday night.

Limiting a Deep Illini Rotation

The Illini present the deepest squad that Maryland has faced this season, a test for head coach Kevin Willard’s depth. Nine different players are averaging at least ten minutes per game as the bench has outscored its opponents by an average of 13.5 points per game, while three players are averaging ten points per game. Terrence Shannon, meanwhile, is a “national player of the year” candidate if you ask Willard as he leads the Illini so far this season with 19.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists.

“I mean, he is playing absolutely unbelievable. The way he’s shooting it from what he did in the past. He’s not even hitting the rim. So, I give the kid a lot of credit [because] he’s playing, not only he’s only shooting the ball at a high level, but he’s really attacking off the bounce maybe better than he was the last couple years I saw him.” Off the bench, sophomore forward Dain Dainja has also proven himself as one of the sharpshooters on the roster for an offense that sits tied for 32nd nationally in scoring offense (83 points). But it’s the versatility between Brad Underwood’s lineups that makes Illinois that much tougher to defend. “They play two different styles in the same game. I mean, with their starting unit, it’s fast, but it’s spaced out. And then the second unit comes in and they really pound it inside and play physical.”

Battle on the Boards

Maryland has won the rebounding battle in every game so far this season, but that’s up for grabs on Friday night. Illinois enters Friday night tied for 28th nationally with 41 rebounds per game thanks to three integral players at least 6-foot-9 along the roster. 6-foot-10 forward Coleman Hawkins is the leading returning scorer and rebounder and he’s made it tougher for Willard and the Terps to figure out.

“I think what makes Illinois so tough is the fact that the way they start with [Coleman] Hawkins at the center spot. They space you out. They do a lot of five out, dribble handoff, back cuts and then they come in with the big fella and they pound you inside and still space you out, but really go inside out. But I think what makes Illinois really tough, they play fast. Much different than they did last year with Kofi.”

That spells out a need for Julian Reese to shine in his first test to see whether he’s able to control the foul trouble that plagued him one season ago, while Donta Scott has a chance to continue his hot shooting. While the stat sheet might not reflect it, veteran forward Patrick Emilien has played an integral role in the frontcourt off the bench specifically and become an asset on the defensive end. “Pat’s been a huge, huge addition. I mean, not only is he backing up the five spot, he’s backing up Donta [Scott]. His numbers don’t show how good he is offensively, but he is really, really good offensively for what we’re doing and what we need him to do.”

Feed off the Crowd

Willard took accountability for the lack of attendance to open the home slate this season. “The schedule’s my fault, I take a lot of blame for the fans not being here, but we’ve played in an empty building,” he added. On Friday night, that’ll change for Terp fans.

Friday night is expected to be the first electric atmosphere inside the Xfinity Center so far this season. With the school unveilings its annual Gold Rush game on Friday night, the matchup will mark the earliest top-25 matchup since the 2019-20 season. While Willard is the first coach in Big Ten history to win each of his first seven games by at least 15 points, Friday night will also be his first time ever facing the Illini as Maryland looks to move to 8-0.

“Gary [Williams] likes to talk about Cole Field House a lot,” Willard joked on Thursday. “So I mean, it’s a nice football facility now. But when I got the job was more or less Scott Van Pelt has really talked about what a great building this is. I think the alumni have been more like Scott, some of the guys was out [with] in the summertime have really talked about what an advantage this building can be.” Willard, though, isn’t taking the expected crowd for granted.

“I’m looking forward to the crowd. I think it’s gonna be great. And I think that’s what [it] needs to be to have a great college program. You need a great home court advantage.”

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