Gary Williams used to take the ACC/Big Ten Challenge personally, in part because of his uber-competitive nature as well as the fact that he came to Maryland from Ohio State. It showed in the way his teams played, winning nine of the 12 games in the series, including the last six.
In taking over for Williams this season, coach Mark Turgeon doesn't have the same history. Neither Turgeon, whose young team faces Illinois (6-0) on Tuesday night at Comcast Center, nor his players, even knew before Monday that Maryland has never lost in five home games in the series.
"Hopefully we can keep that string going," Turgeon said before practice. "It means that we've played very well and beat some good teams. I don't know who they've played or who they've beaten, but we've got a heck of a challenge" Tuesday.
Maryland (3-2) has beaten Illinois three times without a defeat in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, most recently in 2007. The Fighting Illini got some revenge last year, beating the Terps, 80-76, in the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"These are always a good challenge -- first to get a chance to see other teams play, that's always fun," said Illinois guard D.J. Richardson, who leads his team in scoring (13.5points per game). "It's competitive, real competitive. We played Maryland last year and they were a pretty good team, and this year they've got the same team."
Forgive Richardson for not keeping up with Maryland's roster overhaul. Even Turgeon acknowledged Monday that he didn't know exactly what he inherited from Williams.
"I had no idea it was going to be like this," Turgeon said. "I didn't know Pe'Shon [Howard] was going to get hurt. I didn't know guys were going to get out of their scholarships. I didn't know [Haukur Palsson] was going to stay over in Europe. I had no idea what I was getting into. But I know what I'm into now, and I know I can handle it."
Truth be told, Turgeon is more concerned with the first five games in his Maryland coaching career than the past six years in this made-for-ESPN series. Except for the last 10 minutes of his team's 73-67 victory over Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night, Turgeon was pleased with the way his Terps played.
"I think fatigue had just as much to do with it," Turgeon said of his team's struggle at the end with handling the press and its own missed free throws. "And playing a Florida Gulf [Coast] team that had a lot of fight. I really concentrated on what we did the first 30 minutes, which I was really proud of and the [16-point] lead that we built."
Turgeon knows that the Terps will have to play an entire game to have any chance of beating the Fighting Illini, who have breezed through much of their early-season schedule with few obstacles. Despite the fact that it plays a lot of freshmen, Illinois' deep bench is a concern.
"The thing that scares me with anybody right now is if they have quality depth," Turgeon said. "They play 11 guys 10 minutes or more."
For the first time this season, Turgeon actually sounded upbeat, or at least as positive as he has seemed since the day he was introduced last May as Williams' successor.
"We're just trying to take tiny steps to bring it all together," he said. "I think we've made significant improvement since Puerto Rico [where Maryland lost two of three, including by 26 to Iona]. So hopefully that will carry over into [Tuesday] night."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber expects the Terps to put up more of a fight than five of his team's first six opponents. Only Illinois State has played the Fighting Illini tough so far, losing by four points in Cancun, Mexico. Illinois has won the other five games by an average of 22 points.
"We've got a tough road to hoe the next couple of weeks," Weber said after his team's 90-43 demolition of Chicago State on Sunday at home. "It's huge. It's not do-or-die for our season. Maryland, they're down a little bit, but it's still not going to be easy to play at an ACC gym."
This will mark the first time that Maryland -- and Illinois for that matter -- will play on a national-type stage this season. Asked whether his players were aware that this is the first Maryland game being televised on ESPN, Turgeon said: "I'm sure they are. We practiced well [Sunday] night. There was a little more pop in their step.
"Illinois basketball is a big name -- they were in the national championship game six or seven years ago. Bruce has done a great job. I think they'll all be fired up and ready to go. Hopefully we'll have a Maryland crowd Tuesday. That would be nice to see a lot of people come out and cheer these guys on."
Despite struggling with his shooting -- going 10-for-38 overall and 3-for-16 on 3s -- Maryland freshman guard Nick Faust (City) said he is looking forward to tonight.
"I like that, big lights, big stage," Faust said.
Note: The results of the MRI taken on Howard's foot showed the break but that "significant healing" has already taken place, Turgeon said. Howard is expected to be out eight to 12 weeks.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun