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The Journal Gazette

  • Romeo Langford and the No. 21 Hoosiers will take the court tonight for the first time since before Christmas with a matchup against Big Ten foe Illinois at Assembly Hall. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Thursday, January 03, 2019 6:30 pm

Pregame: No. 21 Indiana (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) vs. Illinois (4-9, 0-2)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON – Big Ten basketball is back. After each team played two league games in late November and early December, the conference schedule returns for good this week. For the next two months, as many as 10 Big Ten teams will vie for NCAA Tournament bids with at least half of those possessing legitimate conference championship hopes.

No. 21 Indiana is a member of the latter group, one of five teams off to a 2-0 start in league play and one of seven among the AP Top 25 as the conference schedule re-opens. The Hoosiers start the long conference slog with a matchup against one of the teams from the lower half of the standings; Illinois' 4-9 overall record is the worst in the Big Ten.

It's unclear which Illinois team the Hoosiers will have to face tonight. At their best, the Fighting Illini are an energetic group that swarms ball-handlers on the perimeter and makes even the most simple passes incredibly difficult. That was how the Illini nearly toppled then-No. 3 Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational, eventually falling 84-78.

At their worst, Illinois over-commits on defense, giving up a bevy of easy baskets to slashers and open opportunities to shooters, and struggles to score on offense. Illinois ranks 270th nationally in shooting percentage at 42.6 percent and 302nd in opponent's shooting percentage at 46.3 percent. That's a dreadful combination and it's a main reason the Illini have lost six of their last seven games, including an ugly home loss to Florida Atlantic in their most recent outing.

Illinois' propensity to give up easy baskets when it over-extends itself defensively could be a boon for the Hoosiers, who have thrived on getting good looks close to the basket. Indiana ranks No. 2 nationally in shooting percentage, hitting 52.9 percent as a team and better than 60 percent from 2-point range. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Hoosiers get near or surpass the 60 percent mark overall tonight. Slashers such as Romeo Langford and Devonte Green will have plenty of opportunities to get to the rim without as much help as they'd usually encounter.

The key for Indiana will be avoiding turnovers, which coach Archie Miller called "the whole game." There are going to be broken plays and 50/50 balls galore in this matchup. If the Hoosiers can keep their composure and make the right reads without getting too over-eager, they'll have plenty of easy shots at the rim. If they get rattled on the perimeter and make bad passes, Illinois will have a chance to hang around. The Illini rank No. 10 in the country, forcing 18.3 turnovers per game. Green – starting in place of the still-injured Robert Phinisee – will be the key in that area. He's a terrific playmaker, but often tries to do too much. If the junior guard has more assists than turnovers tonight, the Hoosiers should be in good shape.

As far Big ten games go, Illinois isn't the most successful opponent the Hoosiers will face this season, but Indiana will need to bring as much intensity from the opening tip as against any of the ranked teams the conference has to offer. As Miller said, this could end up being a "rock fight."

dsinn@jg.net