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The keys to an Illinois victory over Indiana

Illinois+head+coach+John+Groce+watches+his+team+from+the+sidelines+during+the+game+against+Ohio+State+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Sunday%2C+January+1.+The+Illini+won+75-70.
Illinois head coach John Groce watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Ohio State at State Farm Center on Sunday, January 1. The Illini won 75-70.

Illinois head coach John Groce watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Ohio State at State Farm Center on Sunday, January 1. The Illini won 75-70.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach John Groce watches his team from the sidelines during the game against Ohio State at State Farm Center on Sunday, January 1. The Illini won 75-70.

Matt Gertsmeier, Illini hoops columnist

Earlier this season the Illinois basketball team found itself in a tough three-game losing streak. After starting the season off 4-3, the Illini surged and have since gone 7-1.

The roles have since been reversed when comparing Illinois and Saturday’s opponent Indiana.

Indiana started the year off 8-1, but have gone 2-4 in its last six games and are most recently on a three-game losing streak.

The No. 25 Hoosiers (10-5, 0-2) host the Illini (11-4, 1-1) in the two teams’ first and only matchup this Big Ten season.

Expect the Hoosiers to bring it.

They are in the midst of a rough stretch of games. Indiana’s three-game losing streak comes at the hands of up-and-coming Nebraska, No. 9 Louisville and No. 13 Wisconsin.

It’s difficult to foresee an Illini win. Experts are favoring Indiana by about 11 points. The Hoosiers are going to be hungry for a win.

It would be upsetting to see Illinois to fall in a pattern of inconsistency with the loss, but if an upset is to occur, Illinois will need to do a few things.

Illinois should limit James Blackmon Jr.’s scoring chances and force him to take difficult shots. Blackmon Jr. has been leading the charge for Indiana averaging about 17 points per game. However, in this recent three-game losing streak he has been averaging just shy of 11 points. In those three games he’s also been shooting the ball about 35 percent from the field.

When Blackmon Jr. is struggling, there’s a strong chance Indiana will be struggling as a team. Continue to put pressure on him and Illinois might be in a good position to control the game.

Capitalizing on Indiana’s turnovers will be a key as well. Indiana is surprisingly more careless with the ball than Illinois. The Hoosiers average the most turnovers per game in the Big Ten with 15.7 per game. The Illini aren’t much better, averaging 13.9 turnovers per game. But there have been signs of improvement for Illinois, turning the ball over only nine times in the team’s recent 75-70 win over Ohio State.

In Indiana’s last game, Wisconsin scored 23 points off of 13 Hoosier turnovers. Illinois needs to play solid defense with active hands and the turnovers should happen naturally.

The Illini have to realize early in the game what is working and what isn’t. It seems simple, because it is simple. Head coach John Groce doesn’t need to overcomplicate things. If the inside scoring is working, keep pounding the ball inside. If the three-pointers are dropping, keep firing away.

In its Big Ten opener, Illinois was embarrassed by Maryland 84-59. Illinois heaved 22 threes against the Terrapins and made four. At some point you need to cut your losses and change up the strategy. If the Illini fall into that trap again it’s going to be a long day for Groce and co.

Illinois will also need to rely on its veterans. Assembly Hall is going to be a hectic environment. A lot of students will be back on campus with classes, starting Jan. 9 for Indiana. The Illini will need to look to seniors Tracy Abrams and Malcolm Hill.

Hill and Abrams have led the way for Illinois this season with Hill averaging about 19 points per game and Abrams with about 12. They’ve both been in games like this before and will need to use that experience to their advantage.

Another factor to consider when looking at tonight’s matchup might be an off the court one with Indiana head coach Tom Crean. As an Award winning listener of Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take, a recent episode came to my attention that might help the Illini out.

A late segment prompted the idea of a tea with Crean’s face on it. Soon, another award winning listener got a hold of Crean and sent a prototype of Crean Tea. Crean did not take it too well, and he may still be a bit rattled from the incident.

But overall, I challenge Illinois to make it a close game. A single-digit loss against Indiana is a good outing in my opinion. But an outright upset win would be even better.

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@MattGertsmeier

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