Indiana began Tuesday's game with the same tenacious attitude they brought on the road against Iowa. Tom Coverdale orchestrated the offense by hitting two early 3s and spotting his teammates for open looks. He made pump fakes, forcing defenders out of position and leading to openings inside for George Leach. Leach played aggressively, attacking the basket for dunks and layups inside. The offense was clicking, and Indiana enjoyed an early lead.
Yet while the Indiana offense was clicking, its defense allowed Illinois to score on 6 of its first 9 attempts. Illinois coach Bill Self had a game plan coming into the game. He knew Indiana would start three guards and that 6'6 Roger Powell had a mismatch against any of Indiana's guards. Powell aggressively took the ball to the basket to start the game, and as Self planned, Indiana was defenseless to stop him.
Powell opened the game on a tear making his first six shots of the game. While Illinois took advantage of Powell's penetration, Indiana could not find an advantage on the offensive end. Illinois continued to score while Indiana's offense sputtered to a halt. With Illinois leading 31-28, Indiana missed eight consecutive shots. The 3-point attempts were not the open looks Tom Coverdale and Bracey Wright had to start the game. Each shot was contested and several shots were forced before Indiana began to run its offense. Indiana forgot about passing the ball inside to Leach, instead settling for the outside shot.
All was not lost for the Indiana, however, after Jeff Newton opened the second half with a jumper, cutting Illinois' lead to 39-32. Indiana switched into a matchup zone. The Hoosiers played the zone well, initially confusing the Fighting Illini, but they could not take advantage of the zone's effectiveness because they could not get the ball. Illinois almost turned the ball three times on its first possession, and as the shot clock dwindled down under five seconds, found Roger Powell who drew a foul. He then missed both free throws, but Indiana once again could not get the ball and this time Dee Brown found James Augustine inside for a jam. Newton missed a jumper on the other end, and Indiana's chance at grabbing momentum was over. Devron Williams made a layup on the other end, the crowd rose to their feet and Indiana was flustered.
The Hoosiers would not challenge Illinois for the rest of the game. Brian Cook had been quiet for most of the game, but he emerged to seal Indiana's fate scoring 9 of Illinois' next 14 points. Indiana trailed 57-40, and Illinois continued to build its lead, finishing the game 80-54. The Fighting Illini dominated the game, outrebounding Indiana 36-20.
Mike Davis made several perplexing lineup decisions in the second half. After playing Marshall Strickland for the entire first half, Davis benched Strickland for Donald Perry for a majority of the second half. Davis only played Wright, one of Indiana's best scorers and defenders, for 17 minutes. Wright could have played a more effective role in the game with more playing time. Davis did not reward Leach for his aggressive play in the first half, preferring Sean Kline in the second half.
When the game was out of reach, ESPN announcer Dave Barnett said the Hoosiers should still make the tournament because they are favored to win their final three games, which would put them at 19-10; the same 19-10 record Indiana had entering the Big Ten tournament last year. Bill Raftery countered Barnett asserting "they're favored to win, that doesn't mean they will." Raftery is right. No game is a gimme in the Big Ten, especially knowing that one of Indiana's three remaining games is on the road. Penn State is arguably the worst team in the conference, but the Nittany Lions did beat Wisconsin a week ago. Anything can happen in this conference and with a 6-7 conference record, Indiana should be feeling a sense of urgency.
Barnett compared this year's team with the Final Four team a year ago by referring to a possible second-straight 19-10 record. True, the Hoosiers could finish this year at 19-10, but they would not have the momentum they had entering the tournament last season. Indiana started last year 7-5 and rebounded to grab a share of the Big Ten title and a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year's team started the season 8-0 but has lost its edge in conference play, particularly on the road.
The Hoosiers can rely on a high RPI ranking of 36, but they still need to win at least 2 more games to have a shot at the tournament. If Indiana can win all three games it could use the Big Ten tournament as a spring board to give them some momentum heading into the tournament. Remember, the Hoosiers played well this year on neutral courts; they just cannot win on the road.
Hoosiers Blown Out
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