Fighting Illini Face "Red Out" At Indiana

The Fighting Illini basketball team travels to Bloomington, Indiana, to take on the Hoosiers Thursday evening. The Hoosiers are reeling after the injury bug hit two of their best players, while the Illini are looking to rebound after an emotional struggle against Ohio State. If the Illini want to secure a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, they need to start winning.

Illinois is favored over Indiana despite playing a road game. The Illini are 14-6 on the season while the Hoosiers are 10-10, 1-6 in the Big 10. But the Hoosiers play the Illini tough and have great crowd support according to Illini coach Bruce Weber.

"They have unbelievable fans, especially when we come to town. It seems like it's loud no matter what their record is. They love basketball there; it's got great tradition.

"Obviously, everyone wants to win, and they would like their program to be re-energized. They are very supportive fans. I give them credit for how loyal they are."

Indiana will play without star guard Maurice Creek, out for the year, and possibly Champaign native and Illini killer Verdell Jones III, who has knee inflammation and is uncertain for the contest. Weber is sympathetic, but he will not take them lightly.

"When you lose two of your best players, it's really tough. It's really hard to make that up. A week ago, they lead Wisconsin deep into the game and play them down to the last couple possessions. Verdell goes out, and they go to Iowa, a game they probably thought they had a chance for a stellar win. I think it caught up with them without Creek, without Verdell."

Their one Big 10 win was at home against Michigan, 80-61. Weber reminds how the Hoosiers play at a higher level at home.

"I do know they play extremely well at home. The one thing Tom has done is they play very hard, they compete. In our games last year, we had to come back from 15 down there, and it came down to the last couple possessions.

"The game at our place, Demetri (McCamey) hit a shot at the buzzer. That's what I'm anticipating, a great effort, a great ball game, one we're gonna have to fight to earn a victory."

Indiana is a young team, and young teams are inconsistent and blow hot and cold. They have only one senior who plays, Jeremiah Rivers (6'-5", 210), who averages 3.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and has handed out 36 assists on the season.

Sophomore Christian Watford (6'-9", 230) is the leading scorer at 16.9 points a game. He also grabs nearly six boards a game and should be one of the Big 10's best before he graduates. Jones III scores at a 12.9 clip when healthy. He shoots .486 from the field and leads the Hoosiers with 64 assists in 20 games.

The third leading scorer on IU's guard-oriented attack is sophomore Jordan Hulls (6'-0", 175). His 10.2 scoring average is thanks to his outstanding shooting, hitting .540 from the field and .494 from the three point line. He also has handed out 60 assists.

Freshman Victor Oladipo (6'-5", 210) and sophomore Derek Elston (6'-9", 235) come in at 7.7 and 6.0 ppg. Elston shoots .576 from the field as the Hoosiers shoot an impressive .485 from the field.

Other role players include freshman Will Sheehey (6'-6", 195), who is shooting .576 from the field including 50% from the arc; junior Matt Roth (6'-3", 192); sophomore Bobby Capobianco (6'-9", 235); and junior post banger Tom Pritchard (6'-9", 250).

Weber was asked whether the Illini can keep up their intensity after three straight challenging games against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.

"This is the first thing I brought up after the game. Yeah, you're disappointed you lost to Ohio State. You gave a great effort. You didn't find a way to win it, but the most important thing is what lies ahead.

"This next three game stretch is very important to continue making progress and finish the first half of the Big 10. I hope they understand. I told them I had a knot in my stomach for 36 hours after the game against Ohio State. I hope the pain and disappointment of a game we could have got is a motivator for the next stretch of the season."

While the four seniors are primarily responsible for the fate of the Illini team, Weber is hopeful some of his younger players may be ready to play more consistently. He mentioned Jereme Richmond and Brandon Paul in particular.

"The one thing we always felt about Jereme is he has a little bit of a competitive edge. And he obviously is good around the basket. I think he's starting to let loose and play. He's doing what he can do well. I hope he continues playing like that; it's definitely gonna help us.

"Brandon has that athleticism. I thought the Michigan State game, not only did he make shots, he just seemed to help everywhere. He defended, he was the leader of our play-hard chart."

Weber also needs sophomore guard D.J. Richardson to play well, but his recent shooting slump has hurt other parts of his game.

"I think D.J.'s in a funk scoring, and he's letting it affect a lot of other stuff. The emphasis we've given to him, 'You can still be very valuable to our team in getting loose balls, getting a rebound, getting a run-out.

"He had a stretch last year of 0 for 16 right about this time. He hit some shots at the end of the Purdue game when we were trying to make a frantic comeback. It got him going, and he was pretty good the rest of the way.

"When you're in a slump, the rim looks smaller. If you've got a hand in his face, it makes it even more difficult. He's got to run harder, cut harder to get open shots. And don't worry about it so much. Do the other stuff and still help us win."

Weber is hopeful Richmond is ready to play his best basketball after a brief return home.

"He played well against Missouri. He had his best game I thought at Iowa. It took him awhile. It probably helped to get focused, 'I'm here, I'm here to stay. I want to do well, I want to be part of this team.' Now that he's starting to understand the game, it's all kind of helped his play. I hope it continues.

"I think he had to get the trust back from everybody. We've all been positive and patient with him. I think he wanted to show he wanted to make a commitment to it. And he wanted to play well.

Now he's starting to understand, he's starting to feel better about himself. It's all gonna work now."

The McDonald's All-American had his first double-double against Ohio State, but there are still things he needs to improve.

"I think he can become a better shooter. One of the things is it's not a natural thing. He hasn't shot it that much on the perimeter. When he catches it, his first instinct is to shot fake and drive to the basket. He passes up opportunities when he has rhythm shots. When he has rhythm he's fine.

"His mechanics aren't perfect, but I know he put a lot of time in in the fall to get the practice. It's very draining on a freshman. We've got a little bit of stretch here, and we've tried to get a couple good days of shooting. Hopefully it's something that he can continue to get better. He needs to get it where it becomes natural and he has rhythm."

Weber says Richmond has also made progress on the defensive end. For those Illinois fans who expected Richmond to start from Day 1, Weber's description of Richmond's early defense should sober them.

"He's made a lot of strides. He's not very good off the ball. It never occurs to him. He's never chased guys on the perimeter like he's had to. Early in the year, he'd point until somebody else would get him.

"Now he's maybe a little late, but he's chasing people. I think his conditioning could be a little better. I think he can do some of that the next couple weeks in games and practice.

"When your conditioning goes and you get a little tired, you don't jump to the ball, you don't chase, or you're a little late on things. He's made strides. I wouldn't say he's a defensive stopper by any means, but he isn't a defensive liability right now."

Richmond has a number of traits the Illini need to make a run the rest of the Big 10 season.

"He gets rebounds in traffic, which is great. He was going up against a fifth year senior in (David) Lighty, who's a great athlete. He was patient, gets him up in the air. So he's got a little bit of confidence and competitiveness. He's got that fire, that spirit, and he doesn't back down. If he can bring that to the table, it's gonna help us."

The Illini have to play consistently well and get a winning streak going. It starts at Indiana, and the Illini must prove they are willing to take every game seriously and play to win. Indiana is emphasizing the game as a "Red Out," so the Illini could be entering a trap in Bloomington.

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