Up next for IU: Today vs. Illinois
Where: Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse
On the air: BTN
Records: IU (17-14), Illinois (18-13)
Expected starters for the Hoosiers: Will Sheehey – 6-7 senior forward, Noah Vonleh – 6-10 freshman forward, Yogi Ferrell -- 6-foot sophomore guard, Troy Williams -- 6-7 freshman forward, Stanford Robinson --.6-4 freshman guard
Update: Indiana's NCAA tourney hopes come down to this -- win four games in four days, something it's never done in school history, and win the Big Ten tourney's automatic NCAA bid. It's only been done once in Big Ten tourney history – in 2001 by Iowa.
Coach Tom Crean talked about his players needing to stay locked into the game and game plan, but here are the top two keys:
1 Shoot well
2 limit the turnovers to 12 or less
3 defend with purpose and consistency.
Hey, we never said math was a strong point.
The Hoosiers have three of the best players in the Big Ten in sophomore Yogi Ferrell (a top-four scorer), freshman Noah Vonleh (the No. 1 rebounder) and senior Will Sheehey (edgy, smart and, well, edgy). All three must play like it. Troy Williams is the Big Ten freshman of week, and must sustain it. Freshmen Stanford Robinson and Devin Davis have come on down the stretch. That must continue. Senior transfer Evan Gordon just needs to be solid.
Vonleh is the first freshman to lead the Big Ten in rebounding since Ohio State's Greg Oden did it in 2007. He's also the first Hoosier to lead the conference in rebounding since D.J. White in 2008. He's the biggest reason why IU ranks No. 7 nationally in rebound margin (plus-7.8).
Ferrell led the Big Ten in three-point baskets (51). The last Hoosier to do that was Robert Vaden in 2006.
Right after last Saturday's Michigan loss, Crean said the Hoosiers were playing their best basketball of the season. A few minutes later, he backed off that, but that doesn't mean he wasn't right -- to an extent. They still enter the tourney with a two-game losing streak.
IU has enough to talent to beat Illinois, and win the tournament. It did beat four ranked teams (Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State). It does lead the conference in three-point field goal defense, holding opponents to 31.0 percent .
It needs poise, discipline, focus and consistency. As the senior captain, Sheehey bears the biggest leadership burden. If he plays to his potential, all things are possible. He averaged 17.2 points in his last five games.
Illinois is peaking. It's won four of its last five games. It has road wins over Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa. That's impressive. The thought is the Illini must win at least two games in Indianapolis to make the NCAA tourney.
There are a lot of reasons for Illinois' improvement, and adding freshman Kendrick Nunn into the starting lineup is a big one. Still, it's all about defense. The Illini have allowed 55.4 points a game over the last eight games. Take out its 84-53 loss to Michigan and they're allowing only 51.3. That, too, is impressive.
The teams split during the regular season, each winning at home. IU's 23 turnovers at Illinois were the main reason for the overtime loss. The Hoosiers are two-point favorites.
Coach Tom Crean: “ We have great respect for Illinois and, really, with the exception of their game with Michigan, they have been playing great basketball over the last month. I don't think there's any question that they are playing with excellent confidence. Their defense is at a high level and they are really, really playing with tremendous energy. We're going to have our work cut out for us at any point in time with anybody in this league, but certainly going into this game, we have great respect for what they are doing and how they are progressing and that's where we sit…
“We do a lot of walk-throughs, which is really what this time of year becomes more of if you're in a tournament setting, because there's so little practice time. Will Sheehey's leadership is something that they need no matter what. They need it from Yogi (Ferrell) and guys that are playing significant minutes and that have been in that situation.
“The most important things is that there's a strong intensity, that it's a really good environment conducive to getting better and, at the same time, that it's competitive. That's what your focus is on.”