The ACC/Big Ten Challenge was not much of one for Maryland or Illinois.
On Tuesday night, both Big Ten Conference representatives throttled overmatched foes from the ACC, setting up a clash of teams riding high into their conference opener Friday night at College Park, Md.
While No. 22 Maryland (7-0) has disposed of each of its opponents by at least 16 points, No. 16 Illinois (6-1) has been as impressive, with its lone loss coming to No. 3 Virginia 70-61 on a neutral court at Las Vegas.
Tuesday found both teams in fine form. While Maryland hammered winless Louisville 79-54, Illinois dominated Syracuse in the second half to finish a 73-44 romp.
The rise of the Terrapins has been noteworthy considering coach Kevin Willard is in his first season with the Terrapins, blending three returning starters with a pair of backcourt transfers.
The difference between the defensive aggression and up-tempo pace favored by Willard, compared to that of predecessor Mark Turgeon, has been marked.
Over the seven games, the Terrapins are averaging 82.1 points, compared to 71.1 points against comparable competition over the first seven games last year.
Two improved Terps have keyed the fast start. Slimmed-down Donta Scott is the Terps’ top scorer, averaging 15.9 points per game, while Julian Reese is scoring at a 13.7 points per game clip and tops the team in rebounds at 7.9 per game.
Charlotte transfer Jahmir Young, who has been a revelation at point guard, had his finest game for Maryland on Tuesday, totaling 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers against Louisville.
“He set the tempo on both ends. He’s playing with confidence,” Willard said. “He’s gone from a combo guard in my eyes to a point guard.”
Lots of questions remain about the Terps’ depth and their presence in the frontcourt. The Illini should provide a formidable test with their deep rotation which includes players who measure 6-foot-10, 6-9 and 6-9.
On Tuesday night, 6-10 Coleman Hawkins was the key figure as he registered a triple double, collecting 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists while passing the ball expertly out of the high post.
“He’s just special against the zone with his feel. He played with great patience,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Coleman sees one pass ahead. He’s gifted. There’s not a lot of people that have that.”
Illinois held Syracuse to 27.8-percent shooting and forced 17 turnovers. But it took a while for the offense to find a flow. Terrence Shannon had 17 points and seven rebounds, while RJ Melendez had 15 points with six rebounds.
The Illini helped compensate for an uncharacteristically cold night from Skyy Clark, who entered the game with 50-percent shooting from 3-point range, but missed all 10 of his shots from the field, including seven from 3-point distance.
“That’s what we keep talking about, how to win when the ball doesn’t always go in,” Underwood said after winning his 100th game at Illinois. “It wasn’t very pretty.”
Maryland has defeated Illinois in eight of the last 10 meetings, including a split last year with each team winning on its home floor. Scott scored 25 points to lead the Terps to an 81-65 win at Maryland in January.