Illinois prepares for visit from new-look Hoosiers

By Jeremy Werner

Last season, Illinois fans were itching for a Feb. 7 home game against Indiana. They hoped to take their frustrations out on Illini enemies No. 1 and No. 2: then-Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson and then-Hoosier freshman Eric Gordon.

Gordon, who decommitted from Illinois after Sampson’s hiring, broke Illinois fans’ hearts for a second time that night, scoring 19 points – including a buzzer-beating three-pointer to send the game to overtime – in Indiana’s 83-79 double overtime win.

But with Gordon now starting for the Los Angeles Clippers and Sampson now on the Milwaukee Bucks coaching staff after resigning last March amid NCAA recruiting violations, the 2008-09 Hoosiers look nothing like last season’s 25-8 NCAA Tournament team.

Indiana limps into the Assembly Hall on Saturday with a 5-9 record. But Indiana’s 72-66 overtime loss to Michigan on Wednesday, a game in which the Hoosiers never trailed until the extra period, could keep the Illini from thinking of Saturday’s matchup as an easy victory.

“They’re going to compete,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “There’s no doubt. Even this (next) four out of five (games) at home, I’ve told (the players) my biggest fear is our emotional maturity of getting ready to play every game. That’s what I’m worried about. I hope we have enough people and enough maturity where we don’t slip up here, whether it’s Indiana or any of the coming home games.”

Indiana head coach Tom Crean was left to pick up the pieces after the NCAA placed the program on probation for three years, stemming from violations during Sampson’s tenure.

All but two Hoosiers – redshirt senior Kyle Taber and redshirt sophomore Brett Finkelmeier – left Indiana after last season.

Crean filled the roster with mostly junior college transfers and freshmen.

“Tom, in a tough situation, he’s done a great job,” Weber said. “I think he’s getting a lot out of his guys. He has so many new guys. We went through it last year. It’s not an easy thing. They compete in games. They play hard. They just have had just been unfortunate in finishing games like (Wednesday) night.”

Junior college transfer Devan Dumes, a 6-foot-2 guard, leads Indiana with 13.7 points per game, while 6-foot-9 freshman forward Tom Pritchard averages 12.5 points and 7.9 rebounds. Champaign Central alum Verdell Jones III will return to his hometown as the likely starting point guard.

Jones has eight starts this season and is averaging 8.1 points and 2.6 as a freshman.

“I hope it’s a warm reception for him,” Weber said of Jones. “I know it’s hard for (Illinois fans) to like Indiana people throughout the years, but at the same time he’s from Champaign.

The Illini (13-2, 1-1) will be looking to rebound after having its seven-game winning streak by Michigan in a 74-64 loss at Ann Arbor on Jan. 4. Weber said the five-day break has given sophomore forward Mike Davis a chance to recover from a bout of tonsillitis and has allowed senior guard Chester Frazier to nurse an injured knee.

Weber said Illinois will need to play like it did in an overtime upset against Purdue on Dec. 30 to remain near the top of the Big Ten.

“We executed not only offensively but defensively down the stretch (against Purdue), and we just didn’t do that against Michigan,” Weber said. “We’ll learn from it and hopefully move forward. We have a nice stretch here. You got four out of five at home. If you’re going to be in the Big Ten race, you got to take care of business and win your home games and see if you can sneak out road games.”