If there's one thing Indiana has become accustomed to and practiced well each week through its first five Big Ten games, it's not overlooking opponents. The Hoosiers grinded out a seven-point win last Saturday at Minnesota, who entered that game 6-11 and winless in the conference.
That mentality of not discounting opponents by their record continues with Tuesday night's 7 p.m. home matchup against Illinois.
"We have a lot respect for how Illinois plays, we have a lot respect for them offensively and defensively," Indiana head coach Tom Crean said. "I think they're going to come in here, much like we anticipated Minnesota the other day in a very desperate, hungry, aggressive way, especially coming off of a tough game."
Crean said he expects that effort anyways because Illinois (9-9, 1-5 is well-coached. Head coach John Groce and the Fighting Illini led through the first 11:25 in their last game, against Nebraska, but the Huskers used a 17-2 lead over the final 8:35 of the first half to take the lead for good and win by 11.
What gave Illinois that early lead was its field goal shooting and its offense.
Crean praised the Fighting Illini's ability to space the floor and utilize the corners of the court. Individually, the player who presents a matchup issue for the majority of opponents is 6-foot-6 junior guard Malcolm Hill.
Hill's 18.1 points per game pegs him as the team's second-leading scorer. On the season, he's shot 44 percent from the field. Illinois as a team owns the same field goal percentage so far this season.
"They have five shooters on the court at the same time and are very good at spreading the floor," IU junior forward Collin Hartman said. "Very fast. They can get out and run. They're explosive and athletic, and we just have to stay focused and stick to our gameplan and not try to do too much."
The Illini froncourt displays that eplosiveness and athleticism the best with grad transfer forward Mike Thorne and junior center Maverick Morgan. The 6-foot-11 Finke has made 41.3 percent of his threes this season, while the 6-foot-10 Morgan leads Illinois in field goal percentage at 57.3.
"Malcolm Hill is a matchup issue for a lot of people, and certainly with what they have with Finke and Maverick Morgan puts a lot of pressure on your inside guys that aren't used to guarding guys especially like Finke that can step out and shoot," Crean said. "And if Thorne is healthy, that just adds another challenge to the game."
While Illinois approach to Saturday's game will likely be very aggressive, Indiana's will continue to be the same of seeking continual improvement.
"We've had a couple of good days coming back from Minnesota, our preparation has been very solid," Crean said. "But most importantly, we're just continuing to try to improve and build on some things that they can get better at, add things that are going to make us better and at the same time continue to grow our team on a daily basis which they're very committed to."
Teammates happy for Tharp, whose addition doesn't rule out any future ones
After Indiana wrapped up practice last Friday in Minneapolis, Crean surprised the team with addition of a new player.
He told them senior manager Jackson Tharp would be added to the roster, effective immediately.
"We were hype," freshman center Thomas Bryant said of the team's reaction. "We were all happy for Jackson, because with him being in the manager spot, he works so hard. He works so hard at his job. He tells us key things that we probably didn't remember or didn't find out about somebody. You could just see it on his face, when coach announced that he was on the team, that he was just so happy, big old smile on his face."
Hartman jokingly appreciated that Tharp would not longer be scoring on them regularly as a member of the scout team. On a more serious note, Hartman said the addition of Tharp helps because Tharp played offense against them so often in practice. As a result, he knows the team's defensive tendencies and where the team's deficiences are.
"We were really excited to bring him on, because the managers are just as vital as anybody else because they do give us the looks on scout," Hartman said. "And he's been here for four years. He's earned it, and it's great to have him on with us."
Regarding any future additions to the active roster, Crean said Tharp's doesn't eliminate the possibility.
"I don't know if it eliminates anything," Crean said. "I don't think it eliminates anything, but there's nothing on the horizon right now."
Tuesday night's nationally-televised matchup on ESPN will include the return of Indiana students.
The university was on winter break through the Ohio State game on Jan. 10. That game was included as part of a holiday package which encompasses most of the homes games that occur during that three-week break. When the students returned from break, Indiana's first game following the break was at Minnesota last Saturday.
"We're excited that students are back," Crean said. "I don't there's any question about that. I thought the energy at the Ohio State game was phenomenal, and we're hoping for the same thing tomorrow night and we're going to need it."