Illinois-Indiana Rivalry Renewed Saturday

Old nemesis Indiana returns to the Assembly Hall Saturday afternoon to face the Fighting Illini in a Big Ten basketball game. Gone from the Indiana entourage are the main antagonists from a year ago, replaced by a new coach and a number of new players. It is a game Illinois is expected to win, so that is exactly why the Illini are wary.

Illinois has had a week to let its loss at Michigan fester. Illini players are eager to put that loss in the past by starting a new winning streak. The Hoosiers have struggled this season as new coach Tom Crean has patched together a team of walkons, freshmen and junior college transfers.

But after watching Indiana's game Wednesday against Michigan, the Illini are forewarned not to take the Hoosiers lightly.

"If you just watched the first half of the Michigan-Indiana game, that did my talking," Illinois coach Bruce Weber reminds. "And even though Indiana lost (in overtime), we just lost to Michigan, and Indiana really controlled the game.

"So no doubt that helps. They were all watching the game. It was boom, boom, boom. Ten point lead, 12 point lead, 19 point lead. I think that definitely helped me with the motivation. We have to have the drive and maturity.

"Our stabilizing forces so far have been our seniors. Chester, Trent, Calvin's gotten better. I hope those guys stay consistent, but we also need the sophomores to beat the best teams at home."

Indiana's plight this season has been reported extensively. They are down, and few Illinois fans feel sympathy for them. But Weber is impressed with Tom Crean's coaching as his ragtag group of overachievers remains competitive. He described their style in detail in a recent press conference.

"In a tough situation, Tom has done a great job. I think he is getting a lot out of his guys. We went through it (turnover) last year, and they've had even more. It's not an easy thing. They compete in games, they play hard.

"They've just had trouble finishing games, like us last year. For instance, in their game with Michigan, they can recall a lot of things that could have made a difference.

"I think he's doing as good a job as anybody in the league. He's been to the Final Four, developed a program at Marquette and gets a lot out of his kids. He has a little bit similar coaching philosophy that they have at Michigan State. He came from the Jud Heathcote tree of coaching.

"They'll play a similar packed defense, force you to earn things in the paint, run a lot of sets and ball screens, and they make you accountable. Obviously, the first half of the Michigan game they played unbelieveable. Michigan didn't hit their threes. The second half, a little different story. And yet at the end, they still had many chances. They're gonna compete, there's no doubt.

"I've talked to our kids about having the mental maturity to play every game. That's what I'm worried about. I hope we have enough people and enough maturity that we don't have a slip-up against Indiana or any of our upcoming home games."

One Indiana player eager to play in the Assembly Hall is freshman Verdell Jones, III (6'-5", 176). The Champaign Central product is a lifelong Illinois fan who now wants to beat the Illini. He is starting for the Hoosiers and is averaging 8.1 points a game while dishing out 3.5 assists. Coach Weber hopes the fans will treat Jones warmly.

"Verdell had great success at Central. They went to the state championship and had an unbelieveable run. I hope it's a warm reception for him. His father has been very important with the AAU programs in the area, helping kids develop their game. He's an opponent right now. But while I know it's hard for Illinois people to like Indiana people, he is from Champaign and was very much part of this community."

Illinois guard Trent Meacham knows Jones well.

"He's got to be excited. He's doing well and having a great freshman year so far. I've known him since he was really young. He's gonna be extra motivated to come here and play well. So we've got to come with the same intensity.

"Of course, Illinois fans don't like Hoosiers. But I think he will have a warm welcome. As another Champaign kid, I want to see him do well. Even though I was a Centennial guy, I was happy to see them go far in the State Tournament last year. But it's Illinois vs. Indiana Saturday, and we're excited about that."

Another athlete ready for a homecoming is Matt Roth. The 6'-3", 186 pound freshman from Washington, Illinois, is an outside shooter deluxe who also once had ambitions of playing for his state school. Roth is averaging 5.9 points a game and has hit three point shots at a .365 rate.

"Matt is a tremendous shooter," Weber warns. "Long range bombs. You're gonna have to be aware of him. They actually play him in a forward position because they want you to guard him with a bigger guy. Bigger guys' tendencies are to sink back in the lane, and he gets open shots."

Freshman Tom Pritchard (6'-9", 242) has been perhaps the biggest surprise for the Hoosiers. Listed as a forward, the postman is a whirling dervish who hustles for points and rebounds. He is second on the team in scoring with a 12.5 mark while leading in rebounding with a 7.4 average.

Junior college transfer Devan Dumes (6'-2", 188) is the Hoosiers' leading scorer with 13.7 points a game. He has also hit the most threes. Freshman Nick Williams (6'-4", 211) is third in scoring at 8.8. Among the others expected to receive playing time include Tijan Jobe (7'-0", 255 junior), Daniel Moore (5'-11", 167 freshman who leads the team in assists), Kipp Schutz (6'-4", 200 sophomore), Malik Story (6'-5", 222 freshman), and senior Kyle Taber (6'-8", 220).

Illini players expect a tough matchup with the Hoosiers.

* Mike Davis: "They're a great team, so we can't take them lightly. Last year, we were really amped up with all the stuff about Eric Gordon. But now our goal is to not lose two games in a row for the rest of the season."

* Mike Tisdale: "I still think the Illinois-Indiana rivalry is one of the best in the country. Even though the teams are different than last year, I think it's gonna be a fun game."

* Demetri McCamey: "It's still gonna be packed. It's still gonna be crazy because it's Illinois vs Indiana basketball. It's still gonna be a pretty hyped game."

* Trent Meacham: "Last year, there was so much hype and controversy around the game. This year, they have a brand new team and new coaching staff. But we're a brand new team as well compared with last year. It's gonna be a fun game."

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