Playing Maryland in a hostile environment could be good prep for Big Ten tournament

Illinois head coach John Groce watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Indiana at the State Farm Center on February 25. The Illini lost 74-47.

By Alex Roux

Only two regular season games remain for Illinois basketball this season, and neither carries much significance.

The unfortunate truth at this point in the season is that the results of these last two matchups out east hardly matter for Illinois (13-16, 5-11 Big Ten). Obviously, John Groce and his players want to win when they take on Maryland (23-6, 11-5 Big Ten) on Thursday and Penn State (15-14, 6-10 Big Ten) on Sunday, but in a lost season there isn’t much consequence if they lose.

The only games that truly matter are the ones being played in Indianapolis next week at the Big Ten tournament. If Illinois is going to harness any March magic and string some wins together, that’s the time to do it. Until then, it’s about playing well down the stretch in preparation for Indy.

It’s like putting in your two-week notice at work. You’re still going to show up, but the main focus is on your upcoming job.

Facing the No. 14 Terps Thursday will be a good tune-up for the second day of the Big Ten tournament. Nothing has been a sure bet with this 13-16 Illini team this season, but with them likely to face Rutgers or still short-handed Minnesota on the first day of the BTT Wednesday, it’s safe to assume they should advance to that second round.

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That’s when Illinois will have to face a real opponent, and it will probably be a team close to Maryland’s caliber.

Indiana won the Big Ten title outright Tuesday, meaning the Terps are bunched in the conference standings with Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Those are the types of teams the Illini could play on that second day, so facing one of similar strength a week in advance should only be viewed as beneficial.

Given how the Illini have played up to this point, a win on the second day of the Big Ten tournament looks unlikely. Beating No. 14 Maryland at Xfinity Center Thursday is even more of a longshot. Even though the Terps have lost two of their last three and haven’t quite lived up to their national title-contending potential all season long, they’re still far more talented than the Illini.

Considering Xfinity Center has proven to be absolutely raucous when the home team needs it to be, it’s hard to imagine the game with Illinois even coming down to the wire.

If the Illini fall in a close one, that’s okay. Really, it is. They’ll be able to build on a result like that and maybe steal a win at Penn State Sunday as the Big Ten tourney beckons. But if it turns into another embarrassment on ESPN like we’ve grown accustomed to this season, your frustration is warranted. Injuries or not, Illinois shouldn’t be getting blown out time after time on the national stage.

Maryland isn’t invincible, even for teams currently chilling in the Big Ten basement. Minnesota picked up its first conference win against the Terps when their stud center Diamond Stone (13 points, 5.4 rebounds per game) was suspended on Feb. 18.

That game showed that Maryland goes as sophomore star point guard Melo Trimble goes, as Trimble shot 3-for-11 with six turnovers in the loss.

Trimble is Maryland’s leading scorer and distributor, good for 14.2 points and 5.2 assists per game. Another off game from him would improve Illinois’ chances immensely, but Maryland has dangerous guys at every position who can fill it up.

Forwards Jake Layman and Robert Carter will probably draw Malcolm Hill’s attention defensively all night, and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon can burn the Illini on the perimeter or at the rim.

Most of Maryland’s current team visited State Farm Center last season, when the No. 11 Terps were upset by the Illini in the teams’ only Big Ten matchup to date. Malcolm Hill was the hero, dropping 28 points in Rayvonte Rice’s absence.

He might have to put the team on his back again to have a chance to win Thursday.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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