Illinois looks for fourth straight Big Ten win against Maryland on Ayo Night 

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Cameron Krasucki

The Illinois men’s basketball team huddles during a timeout during its game against Rutgers on Dec. 3. The Illini will take on the Maryland Terrapins at State Farm Center on Thursday and will honor former player Ayo Dosunmu at halftime.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

Ayo Dosunmu’s jersey will be raised into the rafters at State Farm Center on Thursday night when the Illinois men’s basketball team faces off with Maryland in its fourth Big Ten game of the season. 

The Illini (10-3)  are currently 3-0 in conference play. Maryland (8-5) is 0-2 in conference play, with losses to Northwestern and Iowa. A win on Thursday would all but guarantee the Illini an AP Top-25 poll spot. Illinois received the most votes of non-ranked teams last week and is undefeated this week.

Maryland spreads the ball around on offense, with five players averaging at least 10 points per game. The Terrapins’ leading scorer, senior Eric Ayala, averages 15.2 points per game.

“A team that has elite guards in Fatts Russell and Ayala. They’ve added Q (Qudus Wahab) in the middle,” Underwood said. “A team that is very, very capable of beating anybody in this league. They’re very talented.”

Underwood continued to state that his team will take what the defense gives, a strategy that hasn’t let them down yet. Underwood’s teams have struggled against Maryland in the past, as Illinois is 1-5 against Maryland since Underwood took over in 2017.

Despite this, the Illini have won more conference games than any other Big Ten team in past three years. Like the Illini, Maryland is missing a key player who has had a huge impact on this matchup in past years: Darryl Morsell.

Morsell played at Maryland from 2017-2021 and averaged 9.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Morsell is offensively limited but averaging over two blocks per game while standing just 6-foot-5 is impressive. Morsell graduated in 2021 and is now a graduate student playing for Marquette.

“You’re talking about a guy that is one of the best defenders in the country, a Defensive Player of the Year, a guy that can guard multiple positions. … This team doesn’t have him,” Underwood said. “Ayala’s turned into that a little bit. Fatts can do it in some different ways because of his speed and athleticism. … This is a very, very good defensive team.”

The Terrapins average 70.7 points as a team, while the Illini sit at 80.8 points per game.

Maryland most recently played Iowa in Iowa City on Monday, losing a hard-fought game in which Iowa’s Keegan Murray scored 35 points. Murray is leading the country in scoring at 24.5 points a game.

Junior Kofi Cockburn enters Thursday averaging 22.5 points per game, good for second in the nation. He scored 29 in Illinois’ win at Minnesota on Tuesday. The top three scorers in the nation play in the Big Ten, with third place being Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, averaging 22.3 points.

The Illini will have just one day to prepare for Maryland as their schedule was compressed when the Minnesota game was postponed.

“To me, back-to-back aren’t a big deal in terms of having one-day preps. I had them every year when I was at Stephen F. Austin,” Underwood said. “I enjoy them. I think we get to a certain time when guys would rather play than practice.”

Dosunmu will be in attendance on Thursday as his number 11 jersey is honored and raised into rafters, the 34th player to receive the honor in school history.

After committing to Illinois as the No. 1 prospect in the state, Dosunmu changed the trajectory of the program in just three seasons. In his final season donning the orange and blue, Dosunmu averaged 20.1 points, 5.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds while leading Illinois to a Big Ten Tournament championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

For his efforts, Dosunmu was awarded the Bob Cousy Award for the best point guard in the nation. He also became the first player in Illinois history named a consensus First-Team All-American.

“He’s very deserving. He’s the essence of what our program was going through when we were building,” Underwood said. “I’ve got tremendous respect for Ayo for sticking through it, continuing to work, continuing to allow us to coach him in a way that helped establish our culture. I couldn’t be happier or prouder for an individual.”

 

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