CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Can Indiana keep Illinois from dominating on the glass?
That might be the question that decides whether the Hoosiers have a shot at pulling a road upset this afternoon. Illinois comes into the game at the State Farm Center as one of the best rebounding teams in the country, ranking No. 6 nationally in average rebounding margin at plus-14. Center Kofi Cockburn leads the way with 9.3 rebounds per contest, but Ayo Dosunmu pulls down 7.8 per game, as well, and 6-foot-3 Da'Monte Williams also averages 5.3.
Indiana has had issues with rebounding all season and it hasn't faced a great rebounding team since its loss to Texas at the Maui Invitational, where the Hoosiers got out-scored on the glass 45-29. Coach Archie Miller has worried about Indiana's work on the boards all year and it hasn't helped that center Joey Brunk, arguably the team's second-best player in that area, has not played all season. Brunk's back will seemingly keep him out again today, as he is not warming up with the team. In short, the Hoosiers are going to need everyone to pitch in to keep Illinois off the glass. They can't give one of the best offenses in the country – the Fighting Illini rank 15th in the country in points per game at 89.3 – extra opportunities with offensive rebounds, but they will if Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson are the only ones hitting the boards on a consistent basis.
This is not a particularly good matchup in a couple of different ways for Indiana. Not only are they going to be at a disadvantage on the glass, but with the 7-0 Cockburn clogging the lane, it's one of the few teams against whom Jackson-Davis can't just bully his way to the rim for a good shot any time he wants. When Indiana is struggling to get anything going on offense, that's often one way the Hoosiers are able to survive. Jackson-Davis will still be able to get shots up against Cockburn, of course; the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball is too talented for the Illinois center to shut him down entirely, but he'll find the going in the lane much more difficult than against Northwestern and he might not be able to bail the Hoosiers out as often as he usually does.
Another key for Indiana will be taking care of the ball. Archie Miller voiced some strong criticism after the loss to Northwestern on Wednesday – in which the Hoosiers turned the ball over 16 times, leading to 20 Wildcats points – about the lack of improvement in that area over the last couple of weeks. Illinois no longer plays the hyper-aggressive defense on the perimeter that used to be its hallmark under coach Brad Underwood, but it still has athletes all over the court and will make life difficult for Indiana if the Hoosiers are loose with the ball again.
Ultimately, Indiana's best shot to win this game is likely at the foul line. Illinois is committing 20.2 fouls per game and opposing teams are attempting 20.7 free throws per contest. Underwood recently lambasted Big Ten officials for what he saw as a double standard on foul calls when it came to officiating Cockburn, so it will be interesting to see if that has any noticeable impact on the way the referees officiate this game. Jackson-Davis and Thompson will have to try to attack the basket hard and see if they can get the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in foul trouble and out of the game.
This will be a difficult game for Indiana, but they're all difficult in the Big Ten this season. If the Hoosiers are going to make the NCAA Tournament, they'll have to win some difficult games eventually. They might as well start today and erase the memory of the sloppy loss against Northwestern. They did travel on Christmas, after all; they might as well give themselves a belated present.