Who: Maryland Terrapins at Illinois Fighting Illini
What: A chance for Maryland to get to 3-0 in the Big 10
Where: The State Farm Center and the Big Ten Network
When: 9:00 PM on Wednesday

It’s the first day back from winter break. Everyone’s heading back into work, it’s freezing cold outside, and I’m sitting here writing this on Monday morning like a kid on Christmas. Within an hour, the college basketball rankings will be released, and barring a conspiracy that would warrant another season of Serial, the Maryland Terrapins will be in the Top 10.

At face value, that single digit next to their name is just that: a meaningless number. But I remember being excited when the Terps would creep into the Top 25, and ecstatic when that number would slide under 15. The top 10 is rare air that signifies not only the progress this program has made, but more importantly the progress that Mark Turgeon has made.

Turgeon has always been such an easy guy to root for, and up until this year the results just haven’t been there. It may still be early, and there’s a long way to go, but there should no longer be any doubts that Turgeon. This team has occasionally looked dominant, playing with a smooth pace and rhythm that has shown that, yes, Turgeon can coach offense, and with those two traits this team should be able to dance as well as anyone come March.

What to know about Illinois

After looking through all the numbers, as well as the non-conference schedule I have one quick question for the Illinois fan base: is your team any good? I am legitimately stumped on how to judge the Illinois. They’ll take the floor on Wednesday with a passable 10-5 record, including an 0-2 mark in the Big 10. However, there’s not really a bad loss in the bunch. In fact, in most of the losses they held a lead at halftime, which indicates that they can hang with some very good teams for at least one half of basketball.

I had this whole awesome section written on how shooting guard Rayvonte Rice is a legitimate clone of Dez Wells. He’s by far the most talented player on the team, and at 6’4” he even leads the Illini in rebounding. There are a lot of impressive facets to his game. However, it was reported on Tuesday afternoon that Rice is going to miss the next 5-6 weeks with a broken hand. Every team has one player capable of blowing up a game plan by lighting up the scoreboard, and Rice was that guy for Illinois. Without him, this test gets significantly easier.

That’s because there’s only one other player averaging in double digits on the Illinois team (sophomore swing man Malcolm Hill). Even though the Illini have a very respectable scoring average, it’s tough to see how Hill and a cast of role players would be able to score enough against this Maryland defense to pull the upset.

Where Illinois is really dangerous is the same place Maryland is: the free throw line. As a team they shoot 77.6% from the line, which negates the biggest advantage the Terps have had in their last two games. Even without a three-headed monster like Maryland has, Illinois’ numbers indicate they can definitely put the ball in the basket better than either Minnesota or the semi-healthy Michigan State team Maryland saw.

What to Watch from Maryland

Backup big man:

I firmly believe that Maryland’s starting five (Trimble, Pack, Wells, Layman, Dodd) can play with any team in the country, and it’s mainly because of their defense. The solidifying piece of that defense is Damonte Dodd. Dodd has obviously been terrific for Maryland this year, and his biggest impact has been as the centerpiece of an outstanding defense. Problem is, Dodd can’t play 40 minutes every game.

Early in the season, Michal Cekovsky’s talent was definitely intriguing, and he has a proven penchant for blocking shots. But as the competition has gotten stiffer, Cekovsky’s inexperience has become glaring at times. He often seems lost on the floor, and unaware of how his movements impact the shape of the defense.

Unfortunately, the only other true big guy off the bench isn’t really that big. Jon Graham is the token all hustle guy on the roster, but at 6’8”, he routinely gives up a few inches to opposing centers. Illinois senior Nnanna Egwu is 6’11”, and it should be interesting to see whether Turgeon continues to send Cekovsky out there hoping for growth, or goes with the more stable but smaller Graham when Dodd is on the bench.

Which Freshman gets the push:

With the aforementioned starting five plus Smotrycz, Turgeon has his top 6 pretty firmly in place. That leaves Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens as the 2nd and 3rd players off the bench. At this time, they both have very similar skill sets, and both usually play as the off-ball guard when they do get into the game. Sooner or later, Turgeon will need to pick a favorite between the two, and with the competition ratcheting up, these next few games should provide a good indication of who he’ll favor as the season goes on.

Prediction

Throw the 10-5 record out, Illinois has shown they can play with some of the top teams in the country. In my opinion, this would have been Maryland’s toughest road test of the season had Rice been healthy. Without him, Illinois doesn’t have nearly enough firepower to stick around in this game past halftime.

Maryland gets another impressive road win, and moves forward in their season and hopefully in the rankings.

Maryland – 71, Illinois – 63