Let’s say you’re coming off what is arguably your program’s second-biggest victory in over a decade and following that up with a road game against a team that has lost six of its last seven and is currently 2-7 in the Big Ten. How do you make sure your players stay locked in on the the opponent?
Remind them that this very same team was 12-0 and then 14-2 not long ago.
Indiana plays an Illinois team today at 7 p.m. in Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill., that had exactly that start. The Fighting Illini won the Maui Invitational in November and boast wins over No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 10 Ohio State and No. 14 Butler. However, since crushing Ohio State 74-55 at home on Jan. 5, they’ve dropped six of their last seven. That stretch includes four losses by double-digit margins and a home defeat against Northwestern.
The No. 1 Hoosiers, however, realize they’ll be playing a team that is desperate and therefore dangerous.
“We know that we’ve gotta go over there and play Illinois like (it is) the team that played early in the year and has played at their best,” IU assistant coach Tim Buckley said. “Because they are very capable of that. They are a team that can score points. They can make 3’s. They can beat you off penetration. Our focus and our mindset defensively is going to be very important as we go into this game.”
That’s especially true on the perimeter. The Fighting Illini have made more 3-pointers (182) than any other team in the Big Ten except Michigan (193). They have also taken more (555) than any other team in the conference and they rank eighth in the league in 3-point percentage (.328). That means they’re inconsistent, but it also means that they’re capable of exploding from outside, and everything seems to work better when they are.
“When they’re making shots and they’re in their rhythm and they’re playing the way that they want to play (offensively), they’re probably playing better defensively and playing better on the backboards,” Buckley said. “You can’t let them get into that rhythm. I think they’re very capable offensively, so they’re going to even make tough shots. you can’t give them any of the easy shots.”
The greatest case in point, of course, is senior guard Brandon Paul. Paul ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring with 17.4 points per game, which is the best in the league among shooting guards. He scored 43 points in a win over Ohio State a year ago, showing that the 6-4, 200-pounder is as capable of an offensive explosion unlike any other player in the conference.
“He’s gonna hit some shots where you’re just gonna shake your head and say, ‘Wow, I thought he was covered,'” Buckley said. “‘The defense played the coverage the right way if it’s in the pick-and-roll or you’re getting back in transition and you’re draped all over him and he can just rise up and shoot it. I don’t think he has a range. I think it’s limitless. I think he can shoot the ball really deep. When he’s in that rhythm, anything that’s up there looks like it’s going in. I’d say he’s as good of a shooter or a scorer as there is in the country when he’s really got it going.”
Though Paul is the most dangerous weapon, he’s not the only one. Senior guard D.J. Richardson averages 11.8 points per game and point guard Tracy Abrams averages 11.4. Forward Tyler Griffey and center Nnanna Egwu score significantly less, but they still occasionally hit shots inside and outside as well.
“Their three guards can fill it up,” IU sophomore center Cody Zeller said. “They’re very talented and their inside guys are good pick-and-pop guys. They’re workhorses. They’re a good team. They haven’t won as much as they did early in the season, but we’ve gotta be prepared for their best, because that’s what we’re expecting.”
Hollowell talks improvement
IU freshman forward Jeremy Hollowell met with the media Wednesday for the first time since the early weeks of the season. The Lawrence Central graduate struggled to get on the floor much of the season after scoring in double figures his first two outings. However, he appears to have found a rhythm lately and is coming off a strong performance against Michigan in which he shut down Wolverines star freshman Glenn Robinson III and recorded four points, four rebounds, three blocks and an assist in 10 minutes.
“I’m just getting in the gym, doing extra things, working on my game,” Hollowell said. “And just slowing down out there. Just taking my time and making the right play. It’s really paying off for me. Just keep at it. Stay calm out there. Not force anything or rush anything.”
IU coach Tom Crean said the biggest motivator for Hollowell is the bench. He obviously spent very little time there at Lawrence Central, where he was the centerpiece toward everythign the Bears were doing. The Hoosiers obviously don’t rely on him nearly as heavily, and they wanted to see more from him in terms of scoring, but more so in rebounding and defense before he got more playing time.
“Sitting on the bench kind of made me hungry to get in the gym, work on my game and do whatever I have to do to get on the court,” Hollowell said. “Defend, rebound, block shots, whatever it takes to get on the floor. … The biggest thing is definitely defending and rebounding. Just trying not to let my man score. Being help side, helping my teammates out. Defintely helping out on the glass when I can. playing as hard as I possibly can.
Part of what held him back, of course, was a three-game de facto suspension that came about because of an NCAA eligibility issue that led to the filing of a secondary violation. Though a source said it had something to do with contact with an agent and a family member, contact itself is not a violation, and nothing specific has been reported as to what happened. Hollowell was asked Wednesday what happened, but on the advice of an IU spokesman, declined to address the issue.