Indiana men’s basketball, coming off a 68-55 win against Maryland, will be back at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall at noon Saturday to take on No. 18 Illinois.
Indiana and Illinois enter the game with identical 16-5 records, but Illinois is 9-2 in conference play and sits at first in the Big Ten while Indiana is sixth at 7-4. Illinois, which is coming off a quick turnaround after playing Wednesday, will face an Indiana team that’s had a week off since playing its last game.
“I think we’re itching to play again, so hopefully we come out with high intensity,” junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said Thursday.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind when Indiana faces Illinois:
The monster in the paint
Illinois won its last game 80-67 Wednesday against No. 11 Wisconsin thanks to a 37-point, 12-rebound effort from its All-American hopeful junior Kofi Cockburn. The 7-foot-tall center went 16 of 19 from the field and helped Illinois pull away in the second half.
“Kofi is good, I mean, he's NBA-ready,” head coach Mike Woodson said Friday. “You just can't run from him. We've got to commit ourselves to playing him and playing the guys that are out on the perimeter.”
While Cockburn has the size advantage inside, Jackson-Davis said he will try to use his speed against Cockburn. Jackson-Davis, who is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring, was coming off an injury the last time Indiana faced a player of Cockburn’s stature — sophomore center Zach Edey from Purdue.
While Jackson-Davis played just 11 minutes against the then-No. 4 Boilermakers after getting into foul trouble, senior center Michael Durr played 23 minutes, helping the Hoosiers to a win. However, Durr has only played in one of the team’s three games since.
While Woodson hasn’t gone to him much since the Purdue game, he said this game is one Durr should be ready for.
“We've got a monster in the middle that somebody's got to deal with, so be ready,” Woodson said.
Illinois’ inside-out play
While Cockburn scored nearly half of Illinois’ points against Wisconsin, the team has three other players averaging at least 10 points per game: graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer at 15.3, senior guard Trent Frazier at 12.8 and graduate student guard/forward Jacob Grandison at 10.9.
The trio of Plummer, Frazier and Grandison all shoot at least 35% from 3-point range, with Plummer and Grandison both averaging over 40%.
“They are more spaced out this year, which makes it more difficult to even double team and get back to the shooters,” Woodson said.
The Fighting Illini average nine 3-pointers per game and shoot them at a 36.7% clip. Woodson said the Hoosiers can’t run from the challenge and they have to guard both Cockburn inside and keep up with the Illini shooters on the perimeter.
Indiana’s point guard situation
While senior guard Xavier Johnson is in the midst of his best stretch of games at Indiana, Woodson said senior guard Rob Phinisee will be out for a second-straight game with plantar fasciitis.
“I don't know when Rob is coming back for a while,” Woodson said. “We've got to nurse him back. So, next man up.”
The next man up for Indiana is sophomore guard Khristian Lander. Lander played for the first time in over a month against Maryland and scored for the first time since Nov. 30, putting up 5 points and an assist in 11 minutes.
After the game, Jackson-Davis wrapped his arm around Lander while he was speaking to the media. Jackson-Davis said Lander has been struggling lately, so he wanted to show him some love.
“Just seeing him be able to go out there and just play freely, I know he’s been waiting to do that for a long time, so I’m proud of him,” Jackson-Davis said.
Even with Lander back, Indiana will need Johnson to carry the load on offense, which he’s done well over the last few games. After averaging 17 points in the three games prior, Johnson tied a season high with nine assists against Maryland despite a cold shooting night.
“He’s a wizard with the ball,” senior forward Miller Kopp said.
Woodson and Kopp agreed that Johnson has bought into what the team needs from him, and Woodson said the team is reaping the benefits of his progression.