Illini looking to continue home-court perfection against Hoosiers

It’s been an inconsistent season so far for Illinois hoops, but John Groce’s squad has definitely been reliable in one aspect.

They’ve consistently won on their home court.

The Illini (12-6, 2-3 Big Ten) are 8-0 at State Farm Center this year, and they’re looking to improve to 9-0 at home when they take on the Indiana Hoosiers (13-4, 2-1) Sunday at noon. Illinois’ first seven home wins were tune-ups against small schools, but its most recent victory came against a top-15 Maryland team.

With Big Ten season in full swing, there are no more sure-fire wins on the Illini’s home schedule, and Indiana will be especially tough. The Hoosiers are a high-scoring, fast-paced team — and a dangerous one when their shooters get hot.

Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell has been giving the Big Ten buckets for three years now, and he’s averaging 15.4 points per game. Illini fans probably remember when Ferrell went off for 30 points last year in Champaign, and should know by now that he’s capable of stuffing the stat sheet on any given night. 

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    Ferrell’s scoring is only exceeded on the Hoosiers by freshman guard James Blackmon, Jr., who is scoring 16.4 points per game and looking like a future pro while doing it. Troy Williams and Robert Johnson are capable scorers for Indiana as well. The Hoosiers will look to push the ball in transition and attack the rim, and they’ll also shoot a lot threes. Look for Illinois State transfer Nick Zeisloft to have an impact Sunday. He’ll try to stretch the Illini defense as an added perimeter threat.

    Whatever punch the Hoosiers have on the offensive side of the ball, they lack on defense, especially on the interior. Already thin up front, Indiana’s post problems got a lot worse when it was announced last week that 6-foot-9 Hanner Mosquera-Perea will miss two-to-four weeks with a knee injury. Illinois will have a decided height advantage over the Hoosiers, and Illini big man Nnanna Egwu can give his team a great chance to win if he can exploit Indiana’s weaknesses down low. 

    Egwu also has an opportunity to break the Illinois career blocks record Sunday. He is currently three rejections shy of Deon Thomas’ mark of 177. 

    Though the Hoosiers are playing shorthanded, Illinois will be as well. Rayvonte Rice will miss his fourth consecutive game for the Illini, and they’ll look to sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill once again to help replace Rice’s 17.2 points per game. If Aaron Cosby can have a showing similar to Wednesday’s 19-point eruption at Northwestern, you have to like Illinois’ chances at home.

    If Illinois wants to have a serious shot at the NCAA tournament, these are the types of games it needs to win. The Illini simply have to beat middle-of-the-conference teams like Indiana on their home court to build a tourney resume. If they can’t, it will be teams like Indiana who punch tickets to the Big Dance while Illinois books a trip to another NIT.

    Sunday’s game could act as a launching pad for Illinois to go on a mini-run in Big Ten play, as its next four games after Indiana come against teams with a combined conference record of 5-15. Games like these can completely alter the course of a season. 

    In the end, the deciding factor in this one could come down to home-court advantage. The all-time State Farm Center attendance record has a chance to be broken Sunday, as the ongoing renovations have temporarily pushed arena capacity north of 17,000. Expect the home fans to be fired up. They know how big this game is for Illinois.

    Groce and his players know too. We’ll see if they rise to the challenge.

    Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.

    *Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Indiana guard James Blackmon, Jr., as Justin Blackmon, Jr. The Daily Illini regrets the error.