The Fighting Illini are coming off an impressive 72-67 win over the Northwestern Wildcats up in Evanston this past Wednesday night. Kendrick Nunn scored a career-high 25 points and Aaron Cosby, who was previously mired in a long slump, pitched in another 19 to help lead the Illini to victory. It was the final game of a brutal stretch to start out the conference season where Illinois had four of its first five games away from home. The team finished their "gauntlet" portion of the schedule on a high note and are sitting at 2-3 in the Big Ten, tied for ninth place with Nebraska.
They'll have a chance to catapult their way up to sixth when they take on the Indiana Hoosiers at home this Sunday afternoon, which will also mark the team's fourth game without standout guard Rayvonte Rice. It's tough to say if the Illini have completely adjusted to his absence yet or not, but the win against the Wildcats was certainly a big step in the right direction. However, John Groce's squad isn't the only one with injury problems. Indiana is dealing with the loss of their impressive junior forward, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, to a right knee injury. Prior to him being sidelined he was averaging nearly eight points and five rebounds per game, and was also leading the Hoosiers with 25 blocks so far this season. Replacing him in the lineup is sophomore Collin Hartman, who got his first start against Penn State last weekend, as Indiana tries to attend to their very thin frontcourt situation.
These two Big Ten teams have a long and deep history of playing one another, but lately it has been very one-sided. The Hoosiers have dropped eleven of their last twelve in Champaign, and Illinois also handed them a double-digit first-round loss in the Big Ten tournament last year. Fans will also have no trouble recalling Tyler Griffey's amazing buzzer-beater against Indiana two years ago. The Illini will go for a sixth straight home win against their rivals on Sunday.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Aaron Cosby | JR
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Kevin Yogi Ferrell | JR
- James Blackmon Jr. | FR
- Robert Johnson | FR
- Troy Williams | SO
- Collin Hartman | SO
Keys to the Game:
1. Let's have a re-run of the Cosby Show
It's no secret that Aaron Cosby was struggling going into the Northwestern game. The only reason he was in the starting five was because of Rice's absence, and even then some fans were calling for him to benched for the likes of Mike LaTulip. His shot was flat and his form was poor, and it had been nearly two months since he'd cracked double-digits in the scoring column. But he finally got his stroke back and returned to the Cosby of old against the Wildcats. His 19 points, twelve of which were from behind the arc, were instrumental in the Illini's win. If he can produce like that again, fans might be celebrating another victory this Sunday.
2. Contain Indiana's offense
The Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team who have four players that have all made 25 or more three-point field goals. Their offense ranks 12th in the nation and scores over 80 points per game. They average nearly nine makes from behind the arc per contest. James Blackmon Jr. is second in scoring amongst all Big Ten freshman while fellow newcomer Robert Johnson put together a career-high 20 points in Indiana's most recent win against the Nittany Lions. And I haven't even mentioned Yogi Ferrell yet, who is tenth in the nation in scoring.
The point is that the Hoosiers have a very potent offense and if you're not careful, they'll hang 85 on you before you even know what hit. Is it possible to completely stop both Ferrell and Blackmon Jr. on the offensive end? No, but if you can run them off the three-point line you're taking a lot out of their styles of play. The key for the Illini defense, which struggled against Northwestern, is to try and keep the Hoosiers from scoring from behind the arc. Their frontcourt and subsequently their size is tremendously limited without Mosquera-Perea.
3. Capitalize on the momentum
John Groce's squad is coming off of their first Big Ten road win of the season, and their brutal stretch of ten-out-of-fourteen games on the road is over. Now four of their next five will be in the friendly confines of the State Farm Center and they'll only have to travel away from Champaign five more times before the season's end. Considering the Illini are undefeated at home and the Orange Krush will be back in full force, this team needs to capitalize on their momentum from the Northwestern win and hold serve at home against the Penn State's and Rutgers's of the world. That starts this weekend against Indiana, and even though they're without Rayvonte Rice, this team could be going places if they string together back-to-back conference victories.
Despite being 8-0 at the State Farm Center this year, I think the Illini will suffer their first loss at home against the Hoosiers on Sunday. Yogi Ferrell is an absolute stud, and he can bail his team out of almost any situation. This will be a close game throughout, but I think Indiana's offense, especially Yogi's ability to make tough shots, will prove to be too much for the Rice-less Illini.
Indiana 69, Illinois 65