Conference play officially began on Friday night as Big Ten fans got to enjoy a marquee showdown between Illinois and Maryland in College Park. Both teams were nationally ranked and expected to do big things as the season continued.
Let’s take a look at what happened.
Game of the Night:
-No. 22 Maryland Terrapins 71, No. 16 Illinois Fighting Illini 66
Transitioning from non-conference to conference play is always an interesting part of the season and it’s only gotten better with the Big Ten’s addition of games in December. However, many of the December matchups have been underwhelming, avoiding rivalry games and the league’s best games, at least on paper.
That made Friday particularly special.
Fans not only got treated to the opening of conference play, but got a genuinely great game with a ranked Illinois team on the road against an undefeated Maryland squad. Both were also coming off lopsided wins in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Nobody was quite sure who would come out on top when they played in College Park.
Fortunately, the game itself lived up to the billing. Maryland jumped out to an early lead, but could never pull away enough to end things. And Illinois really started pushing in the second half, outscoring the Terps early on there. All told, Maryland grabbed a hard fought 71-66 win thanks to 24 points from Jahmir Young. Both teams finished above a point a possession, speaking to how well things were played.
For Maryland, this is obviously a massive win. The Terps improved to 8-0 overall and 1-0 in Big Ten play with the win. The team’s dramatic rise also continued, as Maryland went from 56th on KenPom to 19th over the first months of the season. Kevin Willard has simply done an incredible job and deserves a lot of appreciation for Maryland’s rise. This not only looks like a viable contender for an NCAA bid, but perhaps even more.
On the other side, Illinois fell to 6-2 overall and 0-1 in Big Ten play with the loss. The team’s overall resume remains strong, but fans have to be frustrated with another blown opportunity. Illinois was in position to beat Virginia last month and Maryland on Friday night and came up short in both. There’s certainly no reason for panic, but the team’s defense has to improve and Illinois needs to start closing out some of these games.
Maryland will now prepare for Wisconsin on the road on Tuesday while Illinois will get Texas in New York City on Tuesday. Both present as major challenges.