An Illinois beat writer tells us what to expect from the Fighting Illini against Maryland

Forward Jalen Smith rises over an Illinois defender for a close-range shot in Maryland basketball's 59-58 win over the Fighting Illini on Dec. 7, 2019. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Maryland and Illinois are tied atop the Big Ten standings and play Friday to sit alone in first place. In the first meeting between the two, Anthony Cowan’s late heroics helped Maryland snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. Ahead of the rematch in Champaign, we spoke to Miles Powers-Huang of The Daily Illini. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

After two under .500 seasons to start his Illinois tenure, head coach Brad Underwood has the Illini tied for first on the Big Ten. What has changed this season for Illinois?

This season, Underwood has found that perfect blend of youthful talent and veteran experience every coach in the country covets. In his previous two seasons, Underwood went through a trial and error process in trying to find the right players to build a culture around, and as result, there was immense roster turnover between both 2017-18 and 2018-19. However, this year he has the ideal balance. In sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili and freshman center Kofi Cockburn, he has the blue chip talent that has allowed the Illini to become a winning team, while junior guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams and senior guard Andres Feliz have shown the leadership and toughness to lead the team through tough spells.

In their matchup earlier in the season, Illinois took Maryland to the wire. How have the Illini progressed as a team since then?

The game in December served as a turning point for Illinois. Heading into that matchup, Illinois had played two meaningful games, one at Arizona and another at home against Miami (Fla.). They had dropped both in embarrassing fashion, so spirits were not high heading into the game. The fact that Illinois took a ranked Maryland team to the wire, and really should have won the game before giving it away in the final minute, showed everyone within Illini nation that maybe Underwood’s rebuild was closer to completion than expected. Following that loss, Illinois came out in its next game and beat then-No. 5 Michigan, and the Illini are 9-3 since. The main factor that has changed is this team now knows to let Dosunmu take over late in close games. The last time these two teams played, it was Feliz who had the ball in his hands on the crucial possession late in the game, where he would turn the ball over and give away the game winning free throw. Since then, Dosunmu has been far more aggressive in close games, especially in Illinois’ road wins at Wisconsin and Michigan, even drilling a buzzer beater in Ann Arbor.

Dosunmu has been having an All-Big Ten caliber season. What does the point guard do to make him hard to stop?

What’s made Dosunmu hard to stop as of late is his aggression. Because he’s not an elite three point shooter, he closes the gap and knocks it down from mid-range when opponents give him space. When smaller defenders switch on him, he doesn’t hesitate to use his size to muscle them out of the way and create space. Dosunmu has found the right blend of moving the ball in Underwood’s sets in the beginning and middle of the game and looking for his shot when the Illini need him late.

Much like the rest of the conference, Illinois has been hard to beat at home. What makes a trip to the State Farm Center so difficult?

Underwood’s style of play perfectly feeds into a raucous crowd when things are going well. On an ideal night, Underwood wants the Illini pushing the ball up the floor and getting open looks all night. When the Illini are clicking, the crowd can’t stop cheering as three pointers and open dunks rain down. This Illinois team has found a knack for winning ugly too, which also makes it tough for a road opponent, as the Illini faithful gets louder and louder to try and will the team to a close, hard-fought victory.

Illinois wins if…

It wins the dynamic duo matchup. This game will come down to a battle of the two best high-low combos in the conference, as Dosunmu and Cockburn take on Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. If Dosunmu and Cockburn can outscore Cowan and Smith and possibly get them in foul trouble in the process, Illinois has a great shot to take this one in a close game.

Maryland wins if…

Smith is consistent and aggressive with his jump shot. In two of his last three games, Cockburn has scored single digits, and those games came against Michigan’s Jon Teske and Iowa’s Luka Garza. What do both those guys and Smith have in common? Their outside shooting is enough of a threat that opposing bigs have to contest them on the perimeter, allowing them to find easy shots either from the outside or down low depending on how their opponent plays them. Young big men often struggle giving away fouls against versatile players like this who command respect anywhere on the floor, and Cockburn is no exception. He even gave away four fouls the last time the two teams met. If Smith can hit jump shots and get Cockburn in foul trouble, Maryland can sneak out of the State Farm Center with a win.

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