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Illinois at Maryland

by Rick Dimon | November 27th, 2007

Illinois (4-1) jumped right into tough competition this season by making the trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. The Illini blew out Arizona State 77-54 before losing to Duke 79-66 in the semi-finals. Illinois then dispatched Oklahoma State 65-49 in the third-place game. All this came after the first two wins of the season, a home win over Northeastern by eight and then a hard-fought 79-77 win at Hawaii.

Coach Bruce Weber and company are looking to build upon a season in which they just barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a 12-seed. The Illini lost to Virginia Tech 54-52 in the first round. Overall they finished 23-12 and 9-7 in the Big 10. The solid—if not spectacular—2006-2007 campaign came despite way too many injuries to list here.

Illinois cannot afford similar injury woes this season. After coming up short in certain recruiting battles, including the one in which they lost Eric Gordon to Indiana, the Illini have just three scholarship guards on the roster. Among them is junior Chester Frazier, who can do it all—score, pass, and rebounds—and must do it all in order for the Illini to be successful this season. Demetri McCamey could also emerge as a stellar point guard sooner rather than later. Weber, however, will especially rely on two frontcourt seniors in Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle. Both will be tough for Big 10 defenses to handle.

This team definitely has potential, but it could be potential that is realized later on down the road, perhaps even into next season. For now, a lack of star power and depth will hurt the Illini. They already fell to Duke, which looks like the second best team in the ACC, but they are definitely good enough to go toe-to-toe with their ACC-Big 10 Challenge foe.

Maryland (4-2), like Illinois, has already faced stiff competition early in this 2007-2008 college basketball season. Participating in the CBE Classic, the Terrapins got by North Florida and Hampton at home before making the trek to St. Louis for the semi-finals. There they met then-No. 2 UCLA and lost 71-59. In the third-place game Maryland went down to Missouri 84-70. The Terrapins got back to their winning ways with a 72-51 home win over Lehigh to perhaps get them on the right foot heading into the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. It’s not encouraging that Maryland is 0-2 in its two toughest games this season, and that neither was particularly close. However, it’s better than coming into a big game against Illinois not battle-tested.

The Terrapins are coming off a solid 2006-2007 campaign in which they went 25-9 overall and 10-6 in the ACC. A shaky post-season, however, included a 20-point blowout loss to N.C. State in the first round of the conference tournament, a tough come-from-behind win over Davidson in the opening NCAA Tournament game, and finally an upset loss at the hands of Butler 62-59 in the second round. Coach Gary Williams has to envision at least as good a season this year as last, but a new wave of Terrapins will have to step up in order to make that a reality.

Gone from last year’s squad are D.J. Strawberry, Ekene Ibekwe, and Mike Jones. On the bright side, youngsters such as Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes and senior leaders James Gist and Bambale Osby are back to lead the Terrapins. Maryland appears to be solid in both the backcourt and down low, and as is almost always the case with Garry Williams’ clubs, it gets after it on defense. The loss of Ibekwe will hurt in the paint, but the team is still loaded with more than capable defenders and rebounders.

Speaking of defense, the Terrapins will not only speed up the tempo on offense against Illinois, but they also will not be afraid to implement the full-court press and try to force the Illini to player faster than they want on offense and prevent them from running their half-court offense. If the Illinois guards can handle the pressure, Weber and co. have every chance of pulling off a road victory for the Big 10. Unless Osby and Gist can really hit the boards had, stay out of foul trouble, and offset a potential Illinois advantage down low, a narrow win for the visitors is in the cards.

The pick: Illinois by 2.

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