Illinois looks to get back on track in rematch at Indiana

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) attempts a layup during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center, on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013. The Illini won 83-80.

By Johnathan Hettinger

A lot has changed in 26 days.

When Indiana and Illinois first met on New Year’s Eve for the opening of Big Ten play, Illinois sat at 11-2, on the verge of cracking the top 25. Illinois had five starters who could score, led by one of the country’s top scorers in Rayvonte Rice. The Illini had momentum and many of the preseason pundits were saying maybe they had made a mistake by predicting an Illinois-less NCAA Tournament.

Indiana, however, sat at 10-3, their best win over a mediocre Washington squad. One year after winning the Big Ten title, Indiana wasn’t supposed to finish in the top half.

Twenty-six days later, however, the teams both have two Big Ten wins, though they are in very different places.

Illinois started Big Ten play with a big 83-80 win in the teams’ first meeting and followed it up with a 75-55 victory over Penn State, propelling the Illini to No. 23 in the nation. Then the roof fell in. Five straight losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State all but took Illinois out of the NCAA tournament conversation.

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Indiana started Big Ten play with the loss to the Illini and a blowout loss to Michigan State, but won back-to-back games against Penn State and Wisconsin, ending the Badgers’ undefeated season. The Hoosiers then lost to Northwestern at home before almost upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing. The Hoosiers are in better NCAA tournament position than the Illini but need a win Sunday to get back on track and keep up with other tournament contenders.

In the first meeting between the two teams, Rice and Indiana sophomore Yogi Ferrell had a scoring duel that Ferrell won 30-29, though the Illini took the victory. The duel has been indicative of the success of both teams this season, as they live and die with their leading scorer. Rice’s last outstanding performance was against the Hoosiers (29 points, eight rebounds, three steals) and was held scoreless for the first time this season on Thursday.

Groce said he has seen two reasons for Rice’s drop-off, though he was only allowed to speak about one of them, saying he would like for Rice to be more aggressive.

When asked if Rice was struggling because he had never consistently played opponents of this caliber after transferring from Drake, Groce replied, “I don’t think so.”

“He’s a good player,” Groce said. “He just has to get back to playing more consistently at both ends of the floor.”

Illinois struggled with Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh in the first game, as he finished with 16 points and nine rebounds and shot 12 free throws. Had he not been limited by foul trouble, the outcome of the first meeting would likely have been different.

Illini center Nnanna Egwu had his best game of Big Ten play on Thursday, and Groce said although Vonleh is one of the best players in the country, he doesn’t represent that much more of a challenge than other Big Ten forwards.

“This is a big boy league. They’re all good,” Groce said, though he said Egwu could improve his defense on Vonleh. “I’d like to see him do a little bit better.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.