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2/7 Big Ten Preview: First Place On The Line Between Terps and Illini

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Only one game tonight, but it’s a doozy

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight the two best teams in the Big Ten (record-wise) will square off. Turgeon vs. Underwood. 8-3 vs. 8-3. Illini vs. Terrapins. Testudo vs. [redacted]. Orange and Blue vs. Eye Cancer Flag. Two teams enter, one team leaves with sole possession of first place.

Game of the Night Season (So Far)

Maryland Terrapins at Illinois Fighting Illini

  • Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST, FS1
  • KenPom Spread: Illinois -1

Yep, this game isn’t only for first place, it’s pretty much a pick’em, too. What more could you ask for? And it’s on FS1, which means there’s a chance we could get Gus Johnson and/or Bill Raftery on the call. We’ll definitely get Roundball Rock.

Neither of these teams likes to turn their opposition over. Both are competent on the boards, especially at the offensive end. Neither one is very proficient at shooting threes. If either side can alter any one of those three things—if they get a lot of steals, keep their opposition completely off the offensive glass, or get hot from three—they’ll win.

If not, then it comes down to a contrast in styles down low. I feel like I say this in almost every preview this season, but the key matchup will be down low. Illinois makes its living off 2-pointers. Maryland makes its living at the free throw line. Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith have combined for over 250 free throws so far this season. Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu have interestingly both shot exactly 206 twos this season; that’s 50 more than Stix.

It’s tough to make a stylistic argument for Maryland in this one. There’s not a singe Illini player who’s particularly foul-prone, and if you’re counting on getting to the foul line 10+ more times on the road in the Big Ten, you better have compromising photos of one of the referees.

The argument for Maryland is the momentum argument. With five wins in a row, the Terps are the hottest team in the conference. Two of those wins were road games, one of which was impressive (at Indiana), though not as impressive as a win tonight would be. Meanwhile the Illini are coming off the worst trip anyone’s had to Iowa this month with the possible exception of Joe Biden. That loss snapped a 7-game win streak for Illinois.

Illinois only has one home loss this season. (And inexplicable dud against Miami during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.) They played Maryland within a point in College Park. In that game, they actually shot more free throws than Maryland.

My heart and my head are both telling me the same thing. I hope this is an epic game for the ages, but I suspect that it will be a reasonably comfortable win for Illinois. For the first time since Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head, the blue and orange will be sitting alone in first place in February. Or maybe not. But probably.

Pick against the spread: Illinois