After losing their first two Big Ten games, Illinois entered Wednesday night’s contest against No. 11 Maryland faced with the added task of accounting for the loss of leading scorer Rayvonte Rice. With the senior guard averaging 17.2 points per game, one would assume that a collective effort would be what the Fighting Illini needed if they were to knock off a Terrapin squad that entered the game labeled by many as the second-best team in the Big Ten.
While there were many contributors against Maryland, it was Malcolm Hill’s 28-point effort that made the biggest splash offensively and a collective effort on the defensive end resulted in a 64-57 win for John Groce’s squad.
Hill, who also grabbed seven rebounds on the night, made nine of his 18 shots from the field and did a good job of finding quality looks both inside and out. Illinois shot just 36.4% from the field as a team, a figure that will have to improve moving forward, but they made up for this by outscoring the Terps by seven from the foul line (17-10) and putting together one of their best defensive efforts of the entire season.
Maryland, a team that entered the game shooting 46.2% from the field, made just 36.5% of its shots in Champaign. Illinois showed both man and zone looks at different points in the night, and senior center Nnanna Egwu was excellent when it came to both defending his man and helping keep the Maryland guards (most notably Melo Trimble) from turning the corner in ball-screen situations too often. Egwu finished the game with 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, and his role defensively becomes even more important with the loss of Rice.
Without their leading scorer Illinois has to tighten things up defensively and after having issues in their loss at Ohio State, with the Buckeyes shooting 60 percent from the field, that was going to be a point of emphasis with or without Rice on the floor. Instead of allowing the loss of Rice and their 0-2 start to conference play to impact them negatively, Illinois buckled down defensively and kept the Terrapins in check.
So what does this mean for Maryland? Mark Turgeon’s team is still right in the middle of the conversation for the second-best team in the Big Ten, with Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa all being factors as well. But Wednesday’s defeat shows that, like those other teams, Maryland doesn’t have a large margin for error.
Trimble scored 17 points but just three of those came from the foul line for a player who’s been better than any in America at getting to the foul line, and those attempts came in the final minute of the game. With Dez Wells (six points) quiet off the bench and Jake Layman attempting just six field goals (making four and scoring ten points), Maryland found itself in an uphill battle against a team motivated to pick up its first conference victory.
That shouldn’t rule Maryland out of the conversation; they may very well still be the second-best team in the Big Ten despite this loss. And if anything’s to be taken from theses results, it may be that a clear-cut answer to the “second-best team in the Big Ten” question won’t be known for quite some time.