It is odd to be walking into the first Big Ten game of the season against a team who is pretty much on the same path that Indiana is at this point in the season. Truly the only big difference between Indiana and Illinois at this point is that Illinois won their key but not necessarily needed match up against Missouri whereas Indiana dropped theirs to Notre Dame. Outside of that difference it's a push. Both have played very poor schedules with a decent to very good team mixed in here or there and both still have a metric ton to prove.
Coming into the game Indiana and Illinois rank 49th and 50th in Pomeroy. The Hoosiers have the slight advantage in a #21 defense over Illinois' #27 and Illinois has the offensive advantage at #116 to #124. Both teams are good, long athletic defenders who can't seem to throw the ball into the ocean on offense. First, let's take a special look at each team's offense as I think that's where the difference in the game is going to lie.
Both teams have a pretty meh effective field percentage in the 50% range. The difference is Indiana's 1.3% bettering in that category. However that difference is so minuscule it likely won't matter in a single game. What will matter is Indiana's sky high turnover percentage. At 21.6% of possessions the Hoosiers have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. Illinois isn't necessarily going to force turnovers with their defense, so it's going to come down to individual decision making more than on ball pressure from the defense. In turn, Illinois takes pretty good care of the ball. Not great by any means, but with a 16.3% rate we shouldn't expect more than 11 or so in a 68 possession game.
On the flip side, Indiana is dominant on the offensive boards and getting to the free throw line. Illinois through 13 games has struggled to keeps teams off the boards on both offense and defense. They're 124th in the nation in allowing offensive rebounds and 65th in the country at getting them. Indiana in the mean time is 4th on grabbing offensive boards and 29th in defensive. This is where the game has a lot of potential to go bad for Illinois and right for Indiana. Illinois has yet to see a team that knows how to crash the boards like Indiana. Whereas, Indiana has seen pretty much everything Illinois can throw at them from games against #2 Syracuse and #17 Connecticut.
As for the previously mentioned free throws, this is a strength versus strength for the two teams. Illinois is one of the best at avoiding the foul while Indiana is one of the best at drawing them. Both are top 15 squads in their respective categories. If the Hoosiers can pull in rebounds on the offensive end with consistency there's a very good chance that the Hoosiers can be the one to take the biggest advantage of this battle.
In order to take such an advantage into the fold Noah Vonleh is going to have to figure out how to battle with the 6-11 junior Nnanna Egwu. With the departure of Luke Fischer yesterday both Indiana and Illinois are now squads with pretty thin front court depth. Beyond Vonleh is Perea and that's it. For Illinois, beyond Egwu there's nothing. A pair of freshmen, 6-10 Maverick Morgan and 6-9 Austin Colbert both get about 13 minutes combined per game but other than that the Illini offer no post options outside of Egwu. Get the ball into Vonleh and take it at Egwu and Noah will have the height advantage to have a real field day after that. Of course the same could be said for Indiana and Egwu.
Ultimately the guys we should be most concerned about on the offensive end of the floor are guards Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams. Both have good size and spend roughly 27 minutes on the floor with each other. In that time those two account for 52.5% of all of Illinois' possessions. That means that this guard heavy Illinois team is going to take it at Yogi Ferrell and company. Neither player are necessarily good shooters but they're some of the best slashers the Big Ten has to offer. Especially Rice. Though he doesn't get to the line as much as you'd like he's still a big strong physical guard that finishes very well around the rim. Think of him as a sophomore year Victor Oladipo. At 6-4, 235 lbs he's a load to stop once he gets going. The key will be to never allow him that first step.
On the perimeter the only real big threat is Jon Ekey. He's a guy that spends most of his time just hovering around the three point line waiting on drive and kicks from the guards. Shooting 39% on threes he's the only guy on the team that would be a volume shooter you would consider good. So far this year he's actually made more threes than he's taken twos. He's a one trick pony that is pretty good at that one trick.
Finally, you have Joseph Bertrand, he's been the ultimate role player this year for the Illini squad but has the ability to go off for points if you leave him alone. He does lots of things well but nothing great. Still he has the capability to make you pay if you ignore him for some of his more heralded teammates.
Outside of those first five you aren't going to see a whole lot. Illinois is around 300th in the nation in bench minutes, meaning their upperclassmen starters get pretty much all of the minutes. Outside of them it is purely freshman depth. John Groce's team 10 deep with spot minutes here and there for the freshmen. Of the guys that we'll see off the bench, Jaylon Tate is the one we'll see the most of. If Rice or Abrams isn't in, Tate is filling that void. Which means he's logging a decent number of minutes for sixth man. However when he is in he barely gets used. At this point in his young career he's much more of a warm body than a major threat.
Overall, the Hoosiers are going into a tough arena for a true road matchup against a team that will be battling in the middle of the conference pack along with Indiana. Get a victory here and it will go a long way towards securing a higher spot. A road win at Illinois puts them behind the eight ball against the Hoosiers. On the flip side, Indiana could get away with losing this game, but it wouldn't be recommended. We detailed yesterday how the Hoosiers are vulnerable to a very tough start to conference season. However, this is the 50/50 game that could swing that the other way. Indiana is currently a 5 point dog, but they've been on the road to a tough environment. There's experience there. Let's hope that shakes out to a positive this afternoon.