IU-Illinois Gameday Preview: 3 Key Things to Watch

On Thursday at 7:00 ET, the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers (20-2, 8-1 B10) will visit the “other” Assembly Hall when they take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (15-8, 2-7 B10) on ESPN.

As always, Jerod, Ryan, Zach, and Andy will be here with another episode of The Assembly Call after the game.

IU-Illinois Gameday Info

IU-Illinois Preview

Illinois: Three Things to Watch

1. Three-Point Shooting

Look for the threes to fly on Thursday night when Illinois has the ball. The Illini have taken over 40 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, and they generate roughly one-third of their points from long range.

Despite taking a high volume of threes, Illinois doesn’t shoot the ball particularly well from the outside. The Illini are making just 32.4 percent from three-point range this season, and that has dropped off significantly in Big Ten play with the team ranked 11th in three-point shooting at just 25.4 percent in nine games.

Six of Illinois’ eight rotation players have hit at least 12 triples this season, but none of them shoot over 36 percent from beyond the arc. Of the four players who have attempted over 70 threes, Brandon Paul is the top shooter at just 33.1 percent.

All that being said, the three-point shot can be a great equalizer in games like this, and Ohio State and Gonzaga fans can attest to just how explosive Paul can be when he catches fire. It will be imperative for the Hoosiers to limit wide open looks from the outside and challenge shots without fouling.

2. Brandon Paul

It’s fair to say that Paul does a little bit over everything for the Illini. He leads the team in points, ranks second in rebounds and assists, and is third in steals. Paul has scored at least 13 points in all but one contest with season, including a 35-point explosion in a road win at Gonzaga.

Over half of Paul’s shots this season have come from three-point range this season where he’s making just 33.1 percent, but he has made nearly 50 percent of his twos. He is also adept at drawing fouls and getting to the stripe, which will make him a challenge for IU defensively.

Obviously the natural matchup would be Victor Oladipo, who has been outstanding defensively this season and throughout his career. Paul is going to get his points, but the key will be to make him work hard to get them, similar to what the team did against Trey Burke on Saturday night.

3. Rebounding

One of the areas where IU appears to have a large statistical advantage is on the glass where the Hoosiers rank inside of the Top 10 nationally and second in Big Ten play in offensive rebounding percentages.  Meanwhile, Illinois is 241st in defensive rebounding percentage through Tuesday’s games, and they rank 10th in conference games. If those trends hold, expect the Hoosiers to rack up plenty of second chance points thanks to guys like Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, and Christian Watford.

On the other end, Indiana is in the middle of the pack in defensive rebounding in conference play but has put up strong numbers for the season. The same can be said of Illinois on the offensive boards, so I don’t expect either team to have a pronounced advantage there.

Indiana: Three Things to Watch

1. Getting to the Line

The Hoosiers continued their year-long parade to the free throw line against Michigan on Saturday night.

The Wolverines came in as one of the best teams in the nation in limiting opponents’ trips to the line, but IU racked up a 50.0 free throw rate in that contest. The Hoosiers now rank second nationally in free throw rate, which is not great news for an Illinois squad that sits outside of the Top 200 in defensive free throw rate.

Assuming that past performance is indicative of future results, it certainly looks like the Hoosiers should be able to get to the free throw line frequently, which will only magnify the fact that Illinois doesn’t get to the stripe very often based on their perimeter-oriented offensive approach.

2. Yogi Ferrell

Ferrell is someone I haven’t highlighted often in these previews, but his recent performance certainly warrants a mention.

While his assist totals have fluctuated a bit throughout conference play, perhaps Saturday night’s game best illustrates his worth.  Ferrell nailed a couple key early three-pointers, dished out five assists, made all eight of his free throws, and played solid defense on Trey Burke. The game turned a bit once Ferrell went out with his second foul in the first half, and his plus/minus for the game finished at an impressive +20.

It’s probably no coincidence that four of Ferrell’s eight double-digit scoring games have come in the last four contests where he has made 9-of-17 three-point attempts. There has been quite a bit of talk about how much Ferrell has worked on his jumper, and his recent success speaks to that commitment to improve. This is not to say he wasn’t a capable shooter in high school, but it just seems to have taken him a while to find his stroke at this level.

In the end, the team doesn’t necessarily need Yogi to score in double figures every game to be successful, and in fact I would argue him shooting too much isn’t a good thing. However, his ability to consistently hit shots when left open, coupled with his innate ability to get into the lane, will make him an even more dangerous part of the offense in half court sets as well as transition, where he truly excels.

It would be easy to say that Ferrell’s defense is good “for a freshman,” but I would argue it has been impressive regardless of how many years he has been in school. His ability to apply pressure and force turnovers could come up big against the Illini, as point guard Tracy Abrams has struggled at times to take care of the basketball.

3. Avoiding the Letdown

Last week there was some fear that the matchup with Purdue was a trap game, but the Hoosiers didn’t fall victim to that trap and crushed the Boilers. In some ways this game could fall into the same category with a huge road trip to Ohio State coming up this weekend, not to mention the potential letdown factor after Saturday’s win over Michigan.

While I think the Hoosiers have handled similar situations well this season, they will be facing an Illini team with their backs against the wall after losing six of their last seven and eight of their last eleven. After a strong early start, Illinois is now firmly on the bubble and have to find a way to get back on track.

If IU can jump on them early, it would be very easy for the Illini to fall back into “here we go again” mode.  If IU lets them hang around, anything can happen late in the game.

Final Thought

At the beginning of the year this seemed like a game the Hoosiers should win based on preseason projections. That changed a bit once Illinois got off to a hot start, but things have pretty much come full circle given the Illini’s recent woes.  It’s fair to say at this point this is a game IU needs to win if they want to claim the Big Ten title at season’s end.

Based on Illinois’ defensive struggles, particularly in conference play, I’m just not sure how they can slow the Hoosiers down offensively. They have few options to guard Cody Zeller inside, and the Illini have surrendered at least 1.07 points per possession in six of the last seven games.

As mentioned above, the Hoosiers should be able to work the offensive glass and get to the free throw line, both of which should help the cause.  With all that in mind, I think all of IU’s starters should have solid offensive games in this one.

On the other end of the floor, Illinois will continue to rely on the three-point shot as a major part of its offense. Veterans like Paul, D.J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, and Tyler Griffey have all been through their share of Big Ten battles, and while I think many Illini players are more capable shooters than they have shown in recent games, IU’s defense should be able to continue its strong play.

I don’t expect a repeat of last week’s blowout at Purdue, but I do expect the Hoosiers to move to 5-0 in Big Ten road games with an eight point win.

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Listen to Andy Thursday on The Assembly Call. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyBottoms.

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