IU preparing for Illinois, beginning of Big Ten play

Indiana plays an Illinois team at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the State Farm Center in Champaign that was also hit hard by graduation in the offseason. They didn’t lose as much as the Hoosiers did from their 2012-13 squad, but the players they lost critical to that squad’s identity and accounted for much of their production.

The Illini mostly went as guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson did, as they were the only players on the squad who averaged more than 11 points per game. Paul was on the short list of the most explosive scorers in the conference, and Illinois made sure he had the ball in his hand as much as possible. Beyond that, they also lost a pair of reliable big men in Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey. The latter scored the game-winning layup in the Illini’s 74-72 win over then No. 1 Indiana in February.

Like the Hoosiers, who lost four 1,000-point scorers, including a pair of top-five NBA draft picks, Illinois brought in a sizable freshman class. In contrast to Indiana, though, those freshman have been able to ease into the fray thanks to the experienced players Illinois did return as well as a pair of transfers that filled the void.

It’s evident that’s helped the Fighting Illini rebuild quickly. They are 11-2 so far and are about 10 days removed from a victory over then No. 23 Missouri.

“It’s so different than this team,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “Our freshmen, we absolutely have to rely on them every night, and that’s just part of it. There, they get to go in and work in, and I think that brings a lot of confidence to you when you don’t have the responsibility of being a mainstay every night. I’m sure some of that’s part of it, and I think that’s a good blend to have.”

Paul was a big loss, but the Illini are getting all of his production and more from one man so far. Redshirt junior guard Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake who sat out last season, is second in the Big Ten in scoring with 18.2 points per game. Rice trimmed down over the last year, but is still a load at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds and can score off the dribble and from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 50 percent from the field and ranks second on the team with 21 3-pointers.

“Just a bulldozer going to the basket,” Crean said. “He can shoot from 3, he can get to the rim. … Watching him on film, goodness gracious, he gets to the basket, he rebounds it, he can shoot threes, he’s got deep range, he is an aggressive-mindset guy, and you can see that.”

Said IU senior swingman Will Sheehey: “He’s a big guy, he’s strong, he can get you where he wants on the court. You’ve gotta make sure you stay in front of him and don’t give him too many angles.”

The Illini also added a stretch power forward in Jon Ekey, a fifth-year senior from Illinois State. The 6-foot-7, 225-pounder leads the team with 27 3-pointers and is averaging 8.5 points and a team-high 6.0 rebounds per game. Those two team with three returners in point guard Tracy Abrams (12.7 ppg, 3.2 assists per game), swingman Joseph Bertrand (10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and center Nnanna Egwu (8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game) to form a starting lineup that includes two players in their third year of college basketball, one in his fourth and two in their fifth.

“I think their maturity (is what stands out to me,),” Crean said. “… They’ve got one of the most experienced teams in understanding how to play basketball, how to win. John (Groce) is a great coach. Not a good coach, a great coach.”

And behind the experienced players, the freshmen have also been strong. Backup point guard Jaylon Tate averages 3.0 assists per game despite playing just 16.0 minutes per game in relief of Abrams. Guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn and forwards Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan have also shown flashes despite moderate playing time.

The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are still trying to unlock the potential of their young team. They come into Tuesday’s game with a 10-3 record, but with losses in their of their four games against major conference competition and fundamental issues that range from outside shooting to taking care of the basketball. The Hoosiers took a three-day break after the win over Kennesaw State on Dec. 22 for Christmas, but have been in Bloomington since Dec. 26 focusing on the basics before the start of Big Ten play.

“We tried to accomplish a lot in the film room,” Crean said. “… We spent a lot of time on our fundamentals, on our skills, on our driving, on our shooting, on our passing. It’s been very demanding, there’s no question about that, in the sense of decision making, taking care of the ball, the consistency that we’ve gotta have rebounding the ball. I don’t think we’re nearly as good rebounding the ball right now as we could be. I think we can get better at that.”

2 comments

  1. I’m going to have to bust ass to get home for this game, some jack wagon scheduled work during an #IUBB game.

  2. I kind of know a little about conflicting schedules as my wife thinks we need to go out while the game is on to start the New Years revelry.

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