Illinois brings March to Cole

No. 2 gives Maryland early taste of tourney

College Basketball

November 27, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The calendar has yet to reach December, yet the steamy air at sold-out Cole Field House will feel like March tonight.

It is time for the No. 5 Maryland Terrapins to receive another early-season progress report, and No. 2 Illinois will be administering the test.

Talk about a great way to launch the third annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Maryland (3-1), owner of three straight victories and the nation's longest nonconference home-court winning streak at 79, will measure itself against a deep, seasoned Illinois squad (5-0) coming off the Las Vegas Invitational championship.

These guys are not strangers. This marks the third straight season and the fourth in the past five years that the Terps have met the Fighting Illini, and Maryland remembers all too well the message sent by Illinois last November, on the second day of the Maui Invitational. Illinois whipped the Terps badly on the boards while pulling away to a 90-80 victory that sent the Terps spinning into their first 1-3 start since 1968.

Maryland gradually toughened up, all the way to the first Final Four appearance in school history. Illinois made it to the Elite Eight, before losing to Arizona, which went on to reach the national championship game. Now, the Terps and Illinois are poised to push and shove again, and Maryland coach Gary Williams is eager to read another barometer, as he sizes up his group.

"I like the way Illinois plays. They play tough. You find out how good you are in November [in a game like this], whether you win or lose," said Williams, who has never faced a higher-ranked opponent in College Park during his 13 seasons here.

"A lot of teams this time of the year have kind of a false look at themselves, because they haven't been challenged. This is an early look at two good teams. This is a very good test for November. It can't get any better than this, unless we had the No. 1 team coming in."

The obstacles will be plentiful for Maryland, which has not faced a nonconference opponent at Cole ranked this highly since No. 1 Notre Dame was upset by the Lefty Driesell-coached Terps on Jan. 27, 1979.

The Fighting Illini are big and usually nasty, be it while crashing the offensive boards, contesting loose balls or playing half-court defense. Illinois likes to run as much as the Terps, yet the Fighting Illini will grind away just as comfortably. Their personality starts with point guard Frank Williams, a bulky, 6-foot-3 junior who could draw multiple Maryland defenders, including 6-6, 215-pound guard/forward Byron Mouton.

"He's different. He doesn't shoot a lot, he's not the quickest guy on the court, but he makes things happen and he makes tough shots," Terps point guard Steve Blake said of Williams, whom Blake will face for the third time in his career. "He's strong, and he knows how to use his body and how to work the floor."

Williams, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and a preseason All-American, leads Illinois in scoring (16 ppg) and assists (4.2). He sets the tone in his team's three-guard alignment, which features Cory Bradford and Sean Harrington, who average a combined 19.2 points.

Then there is the beef down low, where 6-11 senior center Robert Archibald and 6-10 junior forward Brian Cook (12 ppg, 6.4 rpg) get the Fighting Illini going, with help like 6-9 forward Damir Krupalija and 7-2 freshman center Nick Smith coming off the bench.

The big men figure to have much to say about tonight's outcome. Yes, the Terps recall how they lost the rebounding battle to Illnois by 18 last year.

"If we don't rebound the basketball against Illinois, we know what will happen," backup guard Drew Nicholas said. "One of our assets is the way we get the ball out in transition, and the first thing to that is rebounding."

The Terps need to create some easy points off their pressure defense, get more scoring out of starting junior forward Tahj Holden (5.3 ppg) and really loosen up at the foul line.

Through four games, they are shooting an atrocious 54.3 percent. And senior guard Juan Dixon, the team's leading scorer, averaging 20.3 points, needs to get to the line more. Dixon has made all eight of his free throws, but perhaps due to his early-season ankle injury, he has rarely driven hard to the basket and drawn fouls, one of the trademarks of his game.

"It's the mental part of the game. I look at it like a disease," said Mouton, a 78 percent free-throw shooter a year ago who is making only 42.9 percent this season. "When one person misses, it's like everybody starts missing. All of my life, I've been in the 70s and 80s as a foul shooter. It's frustrating."

A streak of 79

Maryland owns the nation's longest nonconference home-court winning streak, spanning 79 games and more than 11 years. The Terps' last nonconference home defeat was Dec. 12, 1989, against Coppin State. The streak began on Dec. 30, 1989 against Alcorn State. Tracking the streak:

Date Opponent Result

12/30/89 Alcorn State 110-91

1/23/90 South Florida 84-66

1/29/90 Virginia Tech 89-80

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