The Illinois Fighting Illini take their 5 game Big Ten losing streak back on the road today when they travel to yet another hostile venue to face the Indiana Hoosiers in round two of the 2013 version of the rivalry. The last time these two teams squared off Illinois ended up on top, but they were a decidedly different bunch of Illini then, full of swagger on the offensive end.
To say it’s been a struggle recently would be an understatement. If it’s not Nnanna Egwu posting back to back zero point efforts or Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey performing disappearing acts, then it’s Rayvonte Rice just not looking like himself since the Wisconsin game, and it’s all fed in to the season long 5 game losing streak.
The good news is that Illinois was in the Ohio State game until the bitter end as Egwu, Ekey, and Bertrand all re-emerged, but it’s no longer time for moral victories. If Illinois has any shot of making the post-season they are going to have to start accumulating wins in short order, and that starts today in Bloomington.
For their part, the Hoosiers (12-7, 2-4 B1G) come in scuffling as well, having dropped their last 2 games. Indiana made changes to their starting lineup prior to their game against Michigan State, and as a result youth was served with 2 sophomores and 3 freshman getting the lion’s share of the minutes. One of the changes appears to be performance driven as Evan Gordon went to the bench in favor of Stanford Robinson, but the other was strictly injury related as Austin Etherington played 19 unsuccessful minutes in place of Will Sheehey, who is nursing an ankle injury.
According to insidethehall.com, Indiana hopes to have Sheehey back for today’s game which would put a veteran presence back onto the court for the Hoosiers. Secondary players aside, Illinois surely knows who they need to stop after the first match-up in Champaign to open the Big Ten season.
Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleh gave the Illini fits in their last meeting, and this game will surely feature the same obstacles attempting to prevent Illinois from reaching success and an end to the current 5 game skid.
Ferrell hung 30 points on Illinois in the first meeting, and he comes in to this game fresh off a 19 point performance against the Spartans. In total, Ferrell has only been held to single digits one time this season, and the result is that he is Indiana’s leading scorer at 17.5 ppg. So, he’s going to get his, it’s just a matter of limiting how many times he makes it to the charity stripe because that’s where he is supplementing his scoring. In the MSU game, he was 9-10 from the free throw line despite only shooting 30.8% (4-13) from the floor. In the Northwestern game he was held to 9 points on 2-14 shooting, but nearly reached double digits because he converted 4 of 6 free throws.
Vonleh enters this game on the strength of back to back double-doubles, and double digit scoring efforts in each of his last four games. He is the Hoosiers second leading scorer (12.4 ppg), and is the Hoosiers leading rebounder (9.4 rpg). Like Ferrell, Vonleh had an outstanding game in Champaign in the first meeting with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals, but most importantly, 4 blocks. He provides a very strong deterrent in the interior of the Hoosiers defense. Illinois was able to somewhat limit his effectiveness by getting him in to foul trouble, but since then Vonleh has really limited his fouls. In fact, he posted back to back single foul performances in the Hoosiers last 2 games.
Three Things I’d like to see:
1. Less Jump Shooting From Ray Rice – He’s not a jump shooter. He’s a slasher, and right now he is fighting through injury which seems to be limiting his explosiveness. I don’t want to see him hoisting long jumpers just to get looks. If they come within the flow of the offense, fine, but in his last 5 games he has shot 20%, 25%, 25%, 28.6%, and 0% from 3 point land. Bring it inside the arc, Ray!
2. Force turnovers and capitalize - In their last meeting, Illinois forced 23 Hoosier turnovers while only committing 10 themselves. Illinois needs to get back to the pressure defense that forces turnovers, and it’s imperative that they turn those turnovers into points.
3. Joe Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, and Jon Ekey Stay Active – All three of these guys showed up in Columbus, and the Illini nearly got off the slide because of it. If they are going to snap this losing streak they have got to produce. Ekey and Bertrand, in particular, need to play with an extreme sense of urgency because their careers are nearly over. If this ship isn’t righted soon, those careers are going to end without post-season play.
When: Sunday, January 26, 2014, 2 PM CST
Where: Assembly Hall – Bloomington, IN
TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)
Announcers: Eric Collins (Play by Play) and Shon Morris (Analyst)
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.