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Indiana men’s basketball: Three things to know about Illinois

Indiana travels to Champaign on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This article contains mentions of sexual violence.

After an eight day break between games, Indiana will head to Champaign to take on No. 10 Illinois.

The Fighting Illini dropped an overtime game in Evanston that could take them out of the top 10 by next week’s poll, but this is still a huge opportunity for an Indiana team lacking a quality win.

Most notable about the Northwestern game was that it was Illinois’ first Big Ten loss with Terrence Shannon Jr. back in the lineup. Shannon had previously been serving a suspension after being charged with rape in Lawrence, Kansas.

A federal district court issued an injuction against Illinois, forcing the university and basketball program to reinstate Shannon in a controversial decision linked to his draft stock.

With his criminal trial postponed until May, Shannon will likely be available for the rest of the season.

Here’s Three Things to know about Illinois:


Small Ball

As he has done in the past, Brad Underwood is cutting against the dominant trend in the Big Ten by playing primarily three guard lineups. They have size, but it’s more versatile than you’re used to in the Big Ten.en.

In Shannon’s absence, 6’7” junior Luke Goode had been getting the start at the three spot, but he’s now in a backup role again.

Illinois’ lineups will definitely create some matchup issues for Indiana. Shannon played some point guard for the Illini last year, making him a tough cover for Mackenzie Mgbako. Goode is a more favorable matchup, but Indiana won’t want to limit Mgbako’s minutes to when Goode is on the floor.

The good news for Indiana is that Illinois is not an elite 3-point shooting unit despite its smaller lineups. Goode is shooting over 40%, so he shouldn’t be left alone, but they are worse than 130th nationally in 3-point attempts and percentage entering the Indiana game.

This could be a big game for Kel’el Ware if he can return from injury given his rim protection ability. Illinois is going to be able to drive from multiple spots on the floor, so protecting the paint could be the only way to slow down their high-powered offense.


The defense

I’m a little scared to type this because the same was true about Nebraska and that backfired, but Illinois is one of the worst teams in the country at forcing opponents turnovers. This should come as good news to an Indiana team that’s struggled to take care of the ball.

In particular, this could be a good game for Xavier Johnson to get back on track. He’s looked rustiest in his decision making, whether it be a telegraphed pass or leaving his feet before knowing where the ball is going, so this may be a chance for him to slow things down.

That said, Illinois’ defense is pretty solid as a whole. They are elite at limiting assists and are in the top ten nationally for opponent’s free throw attempts. It’s a fundamentally sound approach that relies on good man-to-man defense and off-ball positioning.

Again, that makes this a huge opportunity for Johnson. He’s the best on Indiana’s roster at breaking guys down off the dribble, which could get Illinois into some uncomfortable and unfamiliar spots defensively. A good game from him could be the difference in this game.


Their record

We’re at the point in the season when most teams have at least one Bad Loss, but Illinois’ record on this season is a bit of a head scratcher. Even when accounting for the fact that they were missing a starter, Shannon, for a big portion of the year.

Early in the season, the Illini lost by seven at home to a Marquette team that looked like one of the most solid in the country. Since then, Marquette has failed to live up to the preseason hype and has dropped a home game to Butler.

Also notable are a couple of confusing Big Ten losses to Maryland and Northwestern. Losing to Northwestern on the road isn’t awful in the grand scheme of things, but this was the game when they should have looked complete again with Shannon back in the lineup. A home loss to Maryland is less excusable.

Looking at the wins, the most impressive right now is probably a neutral site win against a Florida Atlantic team that’s also hit a few snags early this season. Like Indiana, Illinois lacks a true quality win and squandered chances against Purdue and Tennessee.

You could probably make the argument that the most impressive game on their resume was the close loss in West Lafayette, but the point remains that this highly-touted Illinois team has yet to notch the kind of statement win you would expect from a top-10 opponent.