It’s go time. When we last saw them, the Illinois Fighting Illini were finishing the Big Ten regular season with a bang as Jon Ekey knocked down a game winning three ball with Aaron White’s out-stretched hand squarely in his face. It was thrilling, and it was big time not just because it lifted the Illini to their third consecutive Big Ten road victory, but more importantly it helped further the momentum they’ve been working so hard to capture heading down the stretch towards Indianapolis.
The Illini will enter Bankers Life Fieldhouse as winners of 4 of their last 5 games including wins in each of their last 3 road games. Overall, Illinois has won eight road contests this season, three of which were neutral site games. By comparison, Indiana has only won three road games this season, one of which was a neutral site game.
So, while it’s true that this could be considered as close to a home game as the Hoosiers could get because it’s being played in the state of Indiana, the fact of the matter is that the Hoosiers aren’t very good away from their actual home floor. They are also very far removed from playing their best basketball of the season.
Indiana is 3-3 in their last 6 contests including losses in each of their last two games (@ Home vs. Nebraska and on the road vs. Michigan) to finish the season.
At this point, we all know that neutralizing Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleh are musts if the Illini want to have a shot at winning this game. Ferrell has scored at will this season, and he has only been held to single digits twice in conference play. He dropped 30 on Illinois in the first meeting, and then followed that up with 17 in the last meeting. He’s hot right now, just as he has been almost the entire season, and he will be the #1 priority for the Illini defense.
Vonleh enters this game limping. He did not appear in 2 of the final 3 games because of a left foot injury, but he did manage to see 21 minutes of floor time in the Hoosiers final regular season game while scoring 7 points, grabbing 8 rebounds, and blocking 2 shots. It will be interesting to see if he shows any residual effects tomorrow when he squares off with Nnanna Egwu.
Vonleh’s brief absence from the lineup also meant that someone else needed to step up for Indiana and a pair of Hoosiers answered the call. The first was Will Sheehey. He’s hit double digits in each of his past 4 games ( 30 vs. Iowa, 19 vs. Ohio st., 13 vs. Nebraska, 17 vs. Michigan). Those performances are a far cry from the 9 points he scored against Illinois in the first meeting and the 5 points he tallied in the last meeting. Sheehey is clearly feeling pretty good about himself on the offensive end right now, and Illinois can not afford to lose track of him on the defensive end.
The second Hoosier to step up and expand his role on the offensive end while Vonleh was out is 6’7″ Freshman forward Troy Williams. He has converted 15 of 21 shots over the Hoosiers past two games, hitting double digits in each (18 vs. Nebraska, 16 vs. Michigan). He’s definitely a player that must be accounted for at this point, but I have no doubt that Coach Groce will have the Illini defense locked in and ready to go.
Illinois defense has been one of the biggest keys to their resurgence, and keeping track of peripheral players such as Troy Williams, Stanford Robinson, and even Will Sheehey, to a degree, will be just as important as limiting Ferrell and Vonleh’s effectiveness.
Three Things I’d like to see in this match-up:
1. Force turnovers and convert on them – Illinois forced 23 Hoosiers turnovers in the first meeting and walked away with a win. In the second meeting Indiana cut their turnovers down to 13 and they managed to hold on for the win at home. Indiana has shown the tendency all season long to turn the ball over. Illinois needs to exploit it, and make them count when they get them.
2. Lock down the glass – No second chance points on the defensive end. Indiana shot 36.7% against Nebraska, but snagged 14 offensive rebounds. They’re going to crash the glass. Illinois needs to make sure they get nothing easy.
3. WIN – Real simple here. If the Illini want to have any shot of playing in the dance this is a must win, and then they are probably going to have to turn around and win on Friday against Michigan to even get themselves back in to the conversation for an at large bid. It can be done, Illini. Now just go do it.
When: Thursday, March 13, 2014, 11 AM CST
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse – Indianapolis, IN
TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)
Announcers: Kevin Kugler (Play by Play), Stephen Bardo (Analyst), and Stephanie White
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with other Illini fans in the comments section below with any observations you may have!
Tags: Illinois Fighting Illini