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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, March 07, 2019 1:00 am

2-0 end IU's only chance to dance

First test on road for Illini's Senior Night

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Indiana at Illinois

Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.

When: 8 p.m.

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

TV: FS1

Radio: 1250 AM, 102.9 FM

Two weeks ago, Indiana's NCAA Tournament chances looked to be long gone.

After two straight victories over ranked opponents, however, including a scintillating comeback performance against then-No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday, the Hoosiers have thrust themselves back into the bracket conversation.

With a middling 15-14 record, they'll only stay there as long as they continue winning. Those two potentially season-saving victories came at Assembly Hall, but today Indiana heads out on the road to face a feisty Illinois team looking to play spoiler on Senior Night.

For most of February, it looked like this game would be played with only pride on the line, but now that the Hoosiers have their postseason fate at stake, coach Archie Miller said the key will be treating the matchup like any other game and staying loose.

“We've got to approach things the same way we've been approaching things,” Miller said. I think everyone understands that. ... You can't make it any bigger than it was last week.

“Each game feels bigger because the season continues to get longer, and everyone is striving for something right now at this time of year, and in the case of our league, it doesn't matter if it's team 1 or team 14. Everyone is good.”

The Hoosiers' recent resurgence has come following a disastrous performance against Minnesota on Feb. 16, after which Miller promised “drastic changes.” Indiana has been a different team since then, splitting four games against ranked opponents, with the two losses by a combined eight points. 

Indiana has gotten huge contributions during the stretch from its pair of talented freshmen: Romeo Langford and Robert Phinisee. To hear Phinisee tell it, however, it's been the upperclassmen who have fueled the rise.

“I'd say leadership really, just staying together in practice and just staying together on and off the floor,” Phinisee said. “We have a good team chemistry, and we just want to fight for the seniors.”

The Hoosiers' final two games of the regular season will be against teams from the lower half of the Big Ten, the Illini and Rutgers.

The seniors, especially Juwan Morgan, who have steadied Indiana late in the season will have to ensure the Hoosiers don't allow their improved intensity to wane against seemingly lesser opponents.

That's especially true against Illinois, which has built its identity on intensity and energy, especially on the defensive end.

The Illini (11-18, 7-11 Big Ten) play a rare, pressuring style on the perimeter, trying to get into passing lanes and make 3-pointers difficult. Their goal is to make their opponents uncomfortable at all times and force them to play an unfamiliar style.

“They want to turn you over,” Miller said of Illinois. “They want you to not be able to do anything that you practice. They don't want you to have any semblance of organization. So you have to be organized and keep things very simple for your guys and understand that it's going to be a hard game.”

The perimeter pressure defense works well against opponents that like to shoot 3-pointers, but Indiana is not one of those teams. The Hoosiers are best when their guards, especially Langford, can get to the basket. If Langford can beat his man off the dribble, there won't be much help defense to stop him from reaching the basket. 

In Indiana's first game against Illinois, on Jan. 3, which the Hoosiers won 73-65, Langford scored a career-high 28 points and shot 15 free throws.

dsinn@jg.net