"You know Indiana is going to see it. The Hoosiers will likely see the zone in just about every game they play in Big Ten play. And why not? When you don't shoot the ball well from the perimeter, teams can pack it against you and force you to beat them from the outside. IU is shooting 47.3 percent from the field, which ranks fourth in the conference. But it's a misleading statistic because the majority of that shooting is in the paint on put backs and lay-ups in transition. Indiana ranks last in the Big Ten from 3-point range shooting 31.5 percent (Illinois ranks 10th at 33.5 percent by the way). The point is that Indiana is going to be seeing some zone and the only way to get teams to get away from it will be to start shooting the ball at a better percentage from the perimeter. That will be a significant key in this game and several games moving forward."
Sure enough, Coach John Groce was asked about using zone in this game. He gave a fairly general answer, but it's clear the Illini could use it.
"We always have it in our back pocket, for sure," Groce said. "We work it every day just like we do our man. We go against man and zone every day. In terms of how much we use it, that's more of an instinct thing for me in terms of a particular game or particular point in a game or if we're trying to throw someone out of rhythm.
"It's been good for us at times. It's like a pitcher who maybe throws all fastballs. You've got to have a splitter, a change up, a curve ball. We've used it a couple times here and there."
What I Want to See… Rayvonte Rice performing in the Big Ten. Or maybe I mean to say, Rayvonte Rice producing in Big Ten play.
Look, I know by now the junior guard has proven himself. I'd say he did that for the guys that matter, the coaching staff and his teammates, while sitting out last season. People routinely told me Rice was the best player in practice and to just wait until next year.
Well, we're 13 games in and Rice is second in the conference in scoring, averaging 18.2 points per game with five 20-point performances. He's the first Illini to hit double digits in first his 13 games since Kenny Battle in 1987-88.
That guy was pretty good, too.
Still, everyone is waiting to see what Rice can do when the big, bright lights of the Big Ten are on and cooking. It's the reason he came to Illinois – to play against the stiffest competition.
If Rice can continue his current clip, Illinois will hold it's own in a once again stacked conference. An NCAA Tournament berth is on the line.
Illinois Will Win If… There's a few things Indiana seems to be really good at – rebounding, scoring easy buckets in transition and getting to the free throw line.
The rebounding, in my opinion, is the key. The Hoosiers offensive rebounding percentage is fourth-best in the nation, hauling in 42.7 percent of the possible rebounds after they take a shot. The Illini can't let that happen, not in their own building and against a rival like Indiana. Nnanna Egwu hasn't enjoyed the best run of his career as of late, especially offensively. In this game though, he's got to come out of the gate active, physical and aggressive on the defensive glass. Jon Ekey must do the same and the guards have to help out, with guys like Joe Bertrand, Rice and Tracy Abrams already known for their rebounding abilities.
Secondly, this Indiana team has a pool of long forwards that can get up the court. Point guard Yogi Ferrell heads up an offense that is averaging just above 15 seconds per possession, a torrid pace compared to the traditional Big Ten style. To this point, Illinois has forced teams to over 18 seconds for each shot, so monitor the pace as the action moves along. If Indiana is getting quick, early looks at the basket, coach Tom Crean will be a happy camper.
Also, and this probably goes hand in hand with the aggressive offensive look, the Hoosiers are 13th in the country in free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted at 54.7 percent. The average team in college basketball is just above 40, so Indiana has made a name for itself by clicking points at the charity stripe. Over 27 percent of the Hoosiers points this season have come at the free throw line. In turn, Illinois is 10th in the nation, holding opponents to 27.3 percent in this category, with only 16.3 percent of points given up coming at the line.
The Hoosiers have two weaknesses – they're extremely young and turn the ball over at a high rate. Once again, adding in the offensive aggression, these two facts could be impacting one another. Indiana's players' average experience is 1.08 years, one of the lowest in the country. They're turning the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their total possession, also one of the worst in the nation.
Score Prediction… Illinois wins, 73-69. I don't see Rice scoring 28 points, but I think he'll handle himself just fine. And I don't see this young Hoosiers team coming into State Farm Center and having it's way on the glass and dictating tempo. Coach John Groce won't allow it. The Illini get off to a good start in the Big Ten with a narrow victory. If Illinois wins, the overall series will be tied at 85 wins apiece. That's pretty special.