CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Sometimes, you have to look in the mirror and recognize that you are your own worst enemy.
On Thursday night, Indiana men’s basketball faced a familiar foe. It wasn’t an Illinois team from recent years. It wasn’t even one of the six other Big Ten teams from earlier in its schedule.
The Hoosiers played themselves. And the better version won.
From the beginning of the first half the Illini played sloppy basketball, slow on defense and rushed on offense. Illinois committed a handful of errors from both a strategical and mental standpoint that ultimately cost them the game –– and it wasn’t close.
From a lack of defensive execution to a plethora of missed shots at the rim to below-average free-throw shooting, the Hoosiers saw something all-too familiar in their opponent.
They knew exactly how to handle it.
Indiana built up a 33-14 lead with 6:38 remaining in the first half, sustained a few bursts of Illinois momentum and still entered halftime up by double digits.
Maybe it was due to an increase in confidence and mental toughness, or maybe it was because the Hoosiers were looking in a mirror.
Indiana completely flipped the script from its three-game losing stretch, capitalizing off the Illini’s mistakes to deliver a brutal punch. It was a punch the Hoosiers knew well –– they had already been knocked down by it against Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State.
But as a wise proverb states, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Whether Mike Woodson intentionally took a page out of Fran McCaffery’s, Chris Collins’ or Micah Shrewsberry’s respective basketball books is neither here nor there. But Woodson’s squad played like a team well-educated from its losses.
Throughout the entire game, Illinois elected not to double team Indiana senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis –– no help whatsoever in the post, lane or baseline.
Just like Indiana’s discombobulated defense cost them a loss to a hot-handed Penn State team Jan. 11, Illinois’ unusual decision earned them an All-American whooping.
Spin move after spin move, backdown after backdown, and-1 after and-1. Jackson-Davis was dominant, strong and –– most importantly –– incredibly comfortable.
“90 percent of the plays were geared to get (Jackson-Davis) the ball,” Woodson said. “I would've been foolish not to do that, until they actually stopped him, and they didn’t do that tonight. He had his way, and we kind of played around him.”
The Illini’s biggest defensive misstep resulted in 35 points –– a Big Ten career high for Jackson-Davis –– on 79% shooting. Even with balanced defense covering the rest of the court, Jackson-Davis still notched five assists to the likes of junior guard Trey Galloway, graduate forward Miller Kopp and junior forward Jordan Geronimo.
Various Hoosiers spent the night slicing through the defensive gaps and along the baseline, catching defenders off guard that had been lulled to sleep by Jackson-Davis' patience with the ball. Defensive intensity –– or lack thereof –– was Indiana’s biggest downfall against Northwestern, and the Hoosiers made certain that the Illini looked as foolish as they did on Jan. 8 while making the same mistakes.
Illinois also had a dismal 9-of-23 outing from the free-throw line, missing countless opportunities to cut down Indiana’s lead and gain momentum. While the game was largely decided by the Hoosiers’ successes as opposed to the Illini’s faults, a loss of easy points certainly didn’t help.
A home crowd is a home crowd, though, and the Illini were able to make a few strong pushes and tide-shifting attempts late in the second half. Indiana found itself in dangerous territory after a 10-2 Illinois run with less than eight minutes remaining in the game.
Against Iowa, a 21-point Indiana lead ended up as a two-point loss. With the under-8 timeout approaching at Illinois, a 20-point lead had been cut down to 12.
But the Hoosiers –– yet again –– proved that they’ve changed.
Indiana went on a 13-6 run before Woodson subbed out the starters and first-string rotational players, unphased by the Illinois push and raucous road environment. While the dissolution against the Hawkeyes was as nightmarish a feat as the Hoosiers could’ve expected, a scare was never a scare for too long against the Illini.
The Hoosiers exorcised their demons Thursday night, and they just might have asserted where their true identity lies.