Following an 11-day hiatus between games, IU is set to begin its final stretch of the season.
The Hoosiers will play 18 consecutive games against Big Ten opponents to finish their 31-game regular season schedule, starting Thursday night at home against Illinois.
“It’s going to be just as mental as it is physical,” senior forward Juwan Morgan said. “Just each and every game. It’ll never be easy.”
The Fighting Illini visit Bloomington having lost their last two games, including an embarrassing 73-71 home overtime loss to Florida Atlantic University.
Going into the game IU is 2-0 in conference play while Illinois is 0-2.
Here are three things to know before IU plays Illinois on Thursday night.
1. Illinois is still finding an identity under coach Brad Underwood.
For as strong as the Big Ten is this season, Illinois remains a conference bottom-feeder. Sitting at 4-9, the Illini's wins have come against an underwhelming quartet of the University of Evansville, Mississippi Valley State University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and East Tennessee State University — which have a combined record of 25-29.
Some of Illinois' losses have come by narrow margins, such as a six-point defeat to then-No. 3 Gonzaga University at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational in November, as well as by double-digits, as was the case in Illinois’ opening conference games against Nebraska and Ohio State.
“Illinois is such a tough team to play against because of their style,” IU Coach Archie Miller said. “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. They thrive on transition and turnovers, making threes.”
As a team, Illinois shoots 36 percent on three-point attempts and averages almost eight steals per contest using a pressure defense installed by second-year head coach Brad Underwood.
“You almost can’t prepare for a team like that,” Morgan said. "They’re going to get in there. They’re going to try to muddy everything up. Even if a play breaks down, we can’t get frazzled and just pick up the ball or just throw it away.”
Underwood has relied on the play of sophomore guard Trent Frazier during each of their seasons together. Frazier has followed his strong freshman season with an equally impressive sophomore campaign so far, averaging 30 minutes, nearly 16 points and three assists per game.
2. IU’s injury situation continues to evolve.
After suffering a concussion during IU’s Dec. 19 game against the University of Central Arkansas, freshman guard Rob Phinisee has been cleared from concussion protocol. But, Miller said Phinisee has still not practiced since the injury and he doesn’t anticipate Phinisee being available for this week’s games against Illinois and No. 2 Michigan.
“He is doing more activity and whatnot, but he hasn’t been cleared to do anything basketball-wise in terms of engaging in practice,” Miller said. “We’ll plan to move forward without him here for the foreseeable future.”
With Phinisee sidelined, this means more ball-handling responsibilities for freshman guard Romeo Langford, sophomore guard Al Durham and junior guard Devonte Green, who scored 32 points and recorded six steals in his last two games.
“I think he’s one of the most laterally quick people I’ve ever met,” Morgan said of Green. “I know he gambles sometimes, but just getting him to stay, I guess, sound and be able to be in the right position, and as quick as he is, he can recover even if he is out of position a little bit.”
Elsewhere, Miller said senior guard Zach McRoberts has practiced and is expected to be available after sitting out IU’s nonconference finale against Jacksonville University.
3. Thursday marks one of only three home games for IU in the next month.
From Thursday through the first week of February, IU will play just three games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall with another six on the road.
The Hoosiers are undefeated at home this season, winning all nine of their games in Bloomington.
“You can’t go on the road and do something that you haven’t done every day,” Morgan said. “We have to play the same way we do at home and bring our own energy on the road.”
IU has played three road games this season, losing at the University of Arkansas and at Duke University while defeating Penn State during the December portion of Big Ten play.
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. Thursday in Bloomington.
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