Even ranked 13th in the nation, Illinois came to New York with something to prove. After suffering their first defeat, the llini hope to leave the Big Apple with the belief that they remain one of the top teams in the country.
The Illini look to bounce back from another loss at Madison Square Garden when they host Maryland in the consolation game of the 2K Sports Classic on Friday.
Illinois won 21 games last season but was left out of the NCAA tournament field. With their top six scorers back, the Illini (3-1) appear poised for major improvement and a deep tournament run come March.
However, after winning their first three games by an average of 25.0 points, the Illini took a step back in their progress with a 90-84 loss to unranked Texas in Thursday’s semifinals.
Though Illinois shot a season-low 38.4 percent and was outscored 15-9 in overtime, its players believe they have the potential to be one the nation’s elite programs this season.
“Texas is a great team and Maryland, Pittsburgh, they’re great teams, and I think we fit right in that category as well,” reserve guard Brandon Paul told the school’s official website.
“We had a lot of expectations last year, this year there are even more expectations, so we’ve just got to go out there and prove it.”
In order to do that for one night, the Illini have to buck a pair of recent negative trends.
Illinois is 2-6 at MSG, and has dropped three straight against Maryland (3-1), which lost 79-70 to No. 5 Pitt in Thursday’s other semifinal.
The Illini lost 69-61 at Maryland in the teams’ most recent meeting Nov. 28, 2007.
Illinois’ Demetri McCamey had eight points as a freshman off the bench in that contest, but has since blossomed into one of the nation’s top point guards.
Averaging 16.5 points and 7.5 assists, McCamey had 22 points with six assists and six rebounds Thursday. Backcourt mate D.J. Richardson added 15 and Paul 12, but the Illini went 10 for 29 from 3-point range and had little inside presence.
Seven-footer Mike Tisdale had seven points in 21 minutes before he fouled out. Fellow forwards Mike Davis and Bill Cole combined for 17 points.
The Illini likely will need Tisdale to stay on the floor against 6-10 Maryland sophomore Jordan Williams, who has averaged 19.3 points and 12.3 boards. Williams failed to record a double-double for the first time this season with 14 and eight rebounds against Pitt.
Senior Cliff Tucker had 17 points for the Terrapins, who shot 48.2 percent from the field but went 14 of 30 from the free-throw line. Maryland has shot 63.1 percent from the stripe this season.
“Of course it’s a concern,” coach Gary Williams said. “We make our free throws the first half, we probably have a lead. What are you going to do?
“We’ll see where we go from there.”
The Terps have lost six straight games against non-conference, Top 25 opponents since beating No. 5 Michigan State 80-62 on Nov. 27, 2008.