BLOOMINGTON – Here comes the Big Ten road, and sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell has advice for Hoosier newcomers.
“Stay together. Don't get caught up in all the hype. We know it will be loud. We're ready for it.”
Indiana (10-3) opens conference play at Illinois (11-2), and if the task is formidable, the approach is simple.
“Illinois is a great team,” Ferrell said. “They play fast and hard and very physical. In order for us to be successful, we have to match their intensity.”
The Hoosiers must do so in their first true road game of the season. They will bring five freshmen who have never experienced this kind of intensity. They've had nine days to get ready -- one day without freshman center Luke Fischer, who has decided to transfer.
“We had a couple of days off, then a whole week of practice to help us get back in the feel,” senior swingman Will Sheehey said. “We continued doing what we have been doing -- taking care of the ball, executing on offense, stopping guys on defense.”
Illinois has plenty of guys to stop with guards Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand.
The 6-4, 235-pound Rice averages 18.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in his first year after transferring from Drake.
“He is just a bulldozer going to the basket,” coach Tom Crean said. “He can shoot from three; he can get to the rim. He has great strength. He is an aggressive mindset guy.”
Added Sheehey: “He's a good player. He knows how to play. He has a good feel for it. They run a good offense. He's a big guy, strong, gets you where he wants you on the court. You have to make sure you stay in front of him and don't give him angles.”
Abrams averages 12.7 points and 4.1 rebounds. He also has a team-leading 42 assists. Bertrand averages 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“I like their maturity," Crean said. "They have guys who have played in a lot of big games. They have one of the more experienced teams.
“They're hard to beat there. They don't beat themselves. They do an excellent job of getting to the foul line. They take care of the ball. They play hard. They shoot a good percentage from three-point range. There aren't a lot of things they don't do.
“We have to match their intensity and emotion and intelligence.”
Illinois has five freshmen on the roster, but only one -- guard Jaylon Tate -- has a significant role. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 39-11.
“We have to rely on our freshmen every night,” Crean said. “They get to work theirs in. That brings a lot of confidence when you don't have the responsibility of being a mainstay every night. That's a good blend to have.”
Crean said they put their break from games to good use, including plenty of conditioning.
“We tried to accomplish a lot in the film room. We spent a lot of time on our fundamentals -- our skills, our driving and passing and shooting. It's been very demanding in the sense of decision making and taking care of the call, of the consistency we have to have in rebounding.
“I don't think we're nearly as good as we could be in rebounding. I know the numbers say differently (IU leads the nation in rebound margin at plus-14; it's fourth in total rebounds per game at 45.5), but we can be better. It will keep getting tested.”
After Illinois, IU hosts Michigan State on Saturday before getting another week break before playing at Penn State. In other words, the Hoosiers get a bunch of practice time.
“You wouldn't necessarily want this break for a veteran team,” Crean said, “but with a young team where practice is so important, it's good. The players would rather play games. They'd rather play six nights a week, but that's not realistic. If they want to get to the point where they're playing four to five nights a week, then they have to get much better with their fundamentals to get to that next level.
“We need that time.”