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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, March 07, 2019 7:10 pm

Pregame: Indiana (15-14, 6-12 Big Ten) vs. Illinois (11-18, 7-11)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – It doesn't feel much like March with snow falling here on the Illinois campus, but we have indeed reached the most exciting month of the college basketball season. The race for the NCAA Tournament is reaching its peak and Indiana enters Champaign today for a must-win game against a Fighting Illini team that would like nothing more than to play spoiler.

The Hoosiers have improbably played their way back on to the edges of the tournament bubble, but  can't afford to lose either of their two remaining Big Ten games against teams from the bottom half of the conference. Illinois comes in occupying 10th place in the league standings, a game ahead of Indiana for the final first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. A loss tonight would mean Indiana would need to beat Rutgers at home on Sunday or be forced to play a Wednesday game in the conference tournament.

Escaping State Farm Center with a win won't be easy. It's Senior Night here in Champaign and the Hoosiers are sure to face a fired-up crowd in addition to an inspired Illini team. Illinois has played much better of late after a tough start to the season and has won five of its last eight games to climb out of the Big Ten cellar. Illinois has made its mark with a distinctive pressure defense on the perimeter, the goal of which is to get in passing lanes and to force opposing teams into playing an unfamiliar style. The Illini have been successful in that area this season, forcing 16.4 turnovers per game, 22nd in the country.

The problem with that strategy is that it works best against teams that shoot a lot of 3-pointers, running them off the arc and forcing them to put the ball on the floor. Indiana is not that type of team – as we've seen, the Hoosiers have struggled to shoot the 3 all season – and are comfortable going to the hoop. When opposing guards do beat their man of the dribble against Illinois, there usually isn't a lot of help in the paint. That was the case the first time Indiana met the Illini, on Jan. 3, when Romeo Langford scored a career-high 28 points. The freshman got to the basket again and again, shooting 15 free throws in the game as the Illini struggled to keep him on the perimeter. Langford could have another big game if Illinois doesn't make some adjustments.

Of course, the biggest key for Indiana in this game will be maintaining the energy that it has shown in the last four games, including its wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Hoosiers have been a different team in these four games, but there have been some big games this season in which they've inexplicably come out flat. If they can avoid that, they're the better team in this game.