Hoosiers embark on tough road challenge
There are no days off in the Big Ten.
Iowa coach Todd Lickliter said it Sunday. IU coach Tom Crean has probably said it a number of times in the last two years.
Even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans have gone 23-3 in conference play over the last year and a half, has surely uttered those same words at some point.
For IU, that sentiment will especially hold true as the team embarks on the final stretch of the season.
Thus far, the Hoosiers have posted a 3-4 Big Ten record , which has included just two games – both losses – against two of the league’s top five teams.
With 11 games left on the Hoosiers’ schedule, they have yet to face No. 5 Michigan State, No. 12 Purdue, No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 24 Ohio State or Northwestern (14-6) at Assembly Hall.
Crean’s 9-10 squad will also hit the road six times, including trips to West Lafayette, Ind., and Madison, Wisc.
Less than two years into Crean’s restoration of the program, IU has posted just a 1-11 record in Big Ten road games and a combined 3-19 record in all games outside of Bloomington.
Before IU can turn its focus to the other road trips and all the matchups versus ranked foes, the Hoosiers have been dealt the typically difficult task of playing on Illinois’ home court.
While IU holds an 82-81 edge in the all-time series, the Hoosiers are 1-7 at the other Assembly Hall since 2000.
Were it not for Sean Pruitt’s free throw shooting performance in 2008, Illinois would be riding a 10-year streak without a home loss to IU heading into Saturday’s game.
Don’t expect IU to get embarrassed by 31 points again, but considering Illinois has already beaten IU once this year, it is reasonable to question whether the Hoosiers have it in them to win in Champaign, Ill.
Certainly the biggest challenge will be that of 7-foot-1 Illinois’ junior center Mike Tisdale.
When IU first met him three weeks ago, Tisdale went for 27 points and 9 rebounds, which included a 13-of-14 effort from the free-throw line.
In the five games since, Tisdale’s 9.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 9-of-14 free-throw shooting didn’t exactly make me all that interested in watching him on the Big Ten Network’s most recent episode of “The Journey.”
On Jan. 19, Purdue managed to hold the 7-footer to 4 points and 5 rebounds. But clearly IU doesn’t have a JaJuan Johnson-type big man to keep Tisdale in check.
In that game, Johnson recorded 24 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes. In IU’s 66-60 loss on Jan. 9, meanwhile, the Hoosiers’ four-man frontcourt totaled 14 points and 18 rebounds in a combined 80 minutes of play.
Naturally, look for Illinois coach Bruce Weber to get a number of dump downs into Tisdale.
“Illinois is running a lot of ball screens along with more high-low action to get the ball in the middle to Mike Tisdale,” Crean tweeted on Thursday.
But the Illini have quite the backcourt as well. Freshman D.J. Richardson and junior Demetri McCamey combined for 33 points in the first contest at IU.
McCamey has averaged 17.4 points and 6.4 assists in the five games since, while Richardson has tallied 11.4 points per game in the same time span.
Illinois, ranked No. 23 to start the year, has completely underachieved this year.
Despite a 5-3 conference record, tied with Ohio State for third-best in the league, the Fighting Illini’s only wins have come against 3-5 Northwestern, 2-6 Iowa, 3-4 IU and 0-8 Penn State twice.
Still, Illinois is 10-2 at home and has not been a kind road opponent for IU in recent memory.
Like Forrest Gump’s “box of chocolates” analogy, there is no knowing which Hoosiers you will get each time you watch them take the court.
IU has had some impressive outings, such as Pittsburgh and Minnesota. The team has also had its share of bad efforts, including Loyola (Md.) and Iowa on Sunday.
That being said, regardless of which Hoosiers show up in Champaign, I’d truly be surprised if they come back home with a victory.
Cohen’s prediction: Illinois 66, IU 56
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