Some years, Indiana’s post-Christmas break between games stretches beyond a week. Other years, it’s far shorter.
File this season among the latter.
IU is back on the floor for a Boxing Day matinee this year, traveling to Champaign to face No. 18 Illinois on Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern.
It’s been an up and down first month for Illinois, which hasn’t won back-to-back games since the first week of the season. In that span, the Illini have scored wins over Duke, Minnesota and Penn State, while dropping games to Baylor, Missouri and Rutgers. So it hasn’t exactly been the fastest start for Brad Underwood’s group. That said, the Illini are ranked seventh in the KenPom team rankings, the program’s highest placement in more than a decade. Even with the three early losses, Illinois has been perfect in Champaign.
The Illini can score it. They’ve posted at least 77 points in eight of the first nine games for the first time since the 1995-96 season, and rank eighth nationally in effective field goal percentage (60.1%). Helping that figure has been the team’s success rate from the perimeter, where Illinois is shooting 43.6% on 3-pointers — that’s the fifth-best mark in the nation.
Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Adam Miller, Da’monte Williams and Kofi Cockburn have been the starting five through the first nine games. Dosunmu is the only player in the country averaging at least 20 points (23.4), five rebounds (7.8) and five assists (5.2) per game. He also has the No. 11 offensive rating (119.1) at KenPom, and is third in the race for KenPom Player of the Year. Across Illinois’ three conference games, Cockburn is averaging 24.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, while shooting 71.4% from the field. Williams is fourth in the country in 3-point shooting, hitting 14 of his first 20 shots on the year. Curbelo, meanwhile, has 22 assists over the past three games.
Things to watch
Outside of Armaan Franklin, Indiana’s guard play has been ... mehhhh. The offensive imbalance was on full display against Northwestern, as Al Durham and Rob Phinisee combined for six (6) whole points in the loss to the Wildcats. Franklin, meanwhile, at least gave IU something. At this point, with these players, it feels like it is what it is. Maybe Khristian Lander will add more punch at some point, but he needs to show he can defend. That takes time, and the fact that he only saw three minutes on Wednesday feels telling. Overall, it’s a messy situation in the backcourt — it’s been a messy situation — and one that doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Will there be any sort of bounce-back response against Illinois?
Get started early
Indiana has shown it can turn it on and adjust after halftime, operating as second-half team for a good chunk of the first month of the season. As for the first half of games thus far? There have been some problems. You saw it just last week, when IU ambled through the opening 20 minutes against Butler before finding traction in the second half. Really, though, this isn’t a new thing with Archie Miller’s Indiana program. Add it to the list.
Through eight games, Indiana is averaging nearly 14 errors per game while carrying a turnover percentage of 19.1%. Loose guard play hasn’t been the only issue here, either. The turnovers and mental lapses have come from virtually all five positions — Trayce Jackson-Davis, for instance, was responsible for five errors against the ‘Cats. Illinois has dealt with similar issues, while posting nearly identical turnover trends across its first nine games.
Game Info / How to Watch
Who? Indiana (5-3, 0-1) at Illinois (6-3, 2-1)
Where? State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
When? Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
Channel? FS1 | Brandon Gaudin (p-b-p), Stephen Bardo (analyst)
Radio? IU Radio Network; Sirius 106, XM 196, Internet 958: Don Fischer, Errek Suhr & Joe Smith
Vegas? Illinois -6