BLOOMINGTON – It feels strange to say that Romeo Langford had a breakout game tonight. After all, the freshman was already sixth in the Big Ten in scoring and had scored 20 points in a game five times this season.
Still, tonight really was a breakout game for Langford. For the first time, he helped pace Indiana to a close win through sheer scoring ability. Illinois and its pressuring defense simply had no answer for him on his repeated forays to the rim. He said after the 73-65 win he's getting more comfortable at this level. Expecting games like this from a freshman is usually a losing bet, but Langford is no ordinary freshman. Illinois learned that tonight.
"Well there is no doubt that he is as good as advertised," Illini coach Brad Underwood said of Langford. "You don't see many freshmen out there with that type of body. I give him credit. It is deceiving sometimes watching him on film and out there on the circuit, but he is really athletic. He is so powerful that it allows him to be a great finisher."
Langford's attacking mentality matched up perfectly with Illinois' aggressive perimeter style. When he beat his defender off the dribble – which happened a lot – there wasn't much help at the rim, a fact that Langford exploited over and over again. He got his 28 points on an efficient 13 attempts and not once did he shy away from contact.
Of course, Langford had plenty of help from the Hoosiers' defense. After a slow start, including a 10-0 Illini run that gave the visitors a 23-13 lead, Indiana clamped down defensively. Everything was a struggle for Illinois, as evidenced by the IU-record six shot-clock violations the Hoosiers forced. Indiana also forced 21 turnovers and held Illinois to 34 percent shooting in the second half. As has often happened this season, the defense came to the rescue when the offense got stagnant. That had been pretty rare over the last several seasons.
Indiana's defensive performance is even more impressive when one considers that it's playing without possibly its best on-ball defender, freshman Robert Phinisee. Phinisee has often been described (mostly by Juwan Morgan) as a "bulldog" on defense and he makes life miserable for opposing ball-handlers. Unfortunately, he's still dealing with a head injury and Miller said "I doubt" Phinisee plays against No. 2 Michigan on Sunday. He did go on to say the freshman guard is improving, however.
"Today was the first day that Rob smiled in a long time, so I know he's feeling better," Miller said. "He's been doing cardio work. He's been doing some shooting. That's about it. And as he doesn't have any be problems or setbacks, they keep letting him do more.
"At shootaround today was the first time I saw him where he was smiling. He had a really good way about him."
Phinisee likely won't be available against the Wolverines, which is a blow for this Indiana team. Although this win against Illinois is still fresh, it's difficult not to look ahead to Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, when the Hoosiers will have a chance to deal 14-0 Michigan its first loss of the season.
"Just going in there, it will be a dogfight for sure," Morgan said of the matchup against the Wolverines. "And just like today we had to anchor down on the defensive end and we know Michigan is a great defensive team, so we have to really run our stuff and be crisp on (the offensive) end."
It will be another brutal test in a schedule full of them.