When Maryland and Illinois met for a tilt at Madison Square Garden last January, the Terps came in as a sizable favorite as the Illini were in the cellar of the Big Ten standings. But 21 turnovers and a disastrous second half later, the Fighting Illini had pulled off the upset.
“They came out with a lot of toughness. They just ran the game, they had control of the game. For us, it just kind of woke us up,” said sophomore Aaron Wiggins. “That was a tough one last year for us, so this year we know we gotta take advantage.”
On Saturday, the No. 3 Terrapins (9-0) will welcome Illinois (6-2) to College Park for the first game of conference play. In total, there are a combined 16 rotation players returning from last year’s game.
While Maryland has added four freshmen to their rotation since then, the Illini have only added one. Kofi Cockburn, a four-star recruit, has been arguably the most productive center in the conference averaging over 16 points and 11 rebounds per game. The 7 foot, 290 pound Cockburn will be the Terps toughest interior matchup by a sizable margin.
“They run good stuff for him. He’s just a load. He’s the best offensive rebounder in the country,” said Turgeon. “I don’t think our guys really know how big he is until the game starts.”
Maryland has won the rebounding battle in nearly every game this season but the Fighting Illini are currently the best rebounding team in the country with a +17.5 rebound differential. They rebound 63 percent of all shots, which is absurdly high.
Maryland will also have to continue to win the turnover battle. Brad Underwood teams typically like to deny entry and reversal passes in a high-pressure defensive scheme Maryland has been much improved in that regard, turning the ball over at the lowest rate in the conference.
“It takes a long time, just to give you an idea of how long we have been working on turnovers. Making smarter decisions. We had seven the other night and five were just terrible decisions,” Turgeon said. “(We’re) playing a much more athletic, faster team. They try to speed you up.”
The Illini will get a boost to their lineup as sophomore forward Tevian Jones will be returning from suspension. Jones had a career-high 18 points against Maryland last year.
The Illinois game starts a three game stretch of teams that beat Maryland the previous year (Penn State and Seton Hall being the other two). On Friday, Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvilli told media that there is no love lost between the two programs.
“Not a lot of love between us because of last year what happened in the game. They were up and we won the game and we (were) not playing well that season,” said Bezhanishvilli. “They got probably a lot of hate for us but we don’t like them either.”
Despite last year’s result and the familiarity of both teams, Wiggins insists the Terps are solely focused on themselves and starting off on the right foot.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a revenge game. It’s a new season,” Wiggins said. “We just want to make sure we get off to a good start in Big Ten play and we just want to come ready to play.”
Maryland looks to start 10-0 for the first time since 1998. Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Saturday and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN 2.
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