IU is in control of its own destiny.
After finishing the regular season with a 17-14 record and an eighth-place finish in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers only have one way to punch their ticket to the big dance — winning the Big Ten Tournament.
IU’s first-round matchup is against Illinois (18-13, 7-11) at noon today in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Fighting Illini enter the tournament having won four of its past five games, including road victories against then-No. 18 Michigan State and then-No. 24 Iowa.
During Monday’s Big Ten Coaches Teleconference, IU Coach Tom Crean said Illinois has played great basketball during the last month, with the exception of its 31-point loss to Michigan.
“I don’t think there’s any question that they are playing with excellent confidence,” Crean said, adding that the Illini are playing with tremendous energy and at a high level on defense. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us at any point in time with anybody in this league. But certainly going into this game, we have great respect for what they are doing and how they are progressing.”
Illinois’ road game against Penn State on Feb. 9 was the team’s turning point, according to Crean.
After an eight-game skid during the heart of the regular season, Illinois Coach John Groce changed his starting lineup in State College, Pa.
He moved graduate student Jon Ekey and redshirt senior Joseph Bertrand to the bench. Freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were promoted to the Illini’s starting five.
Illinois finished 5-3 down the stretch in conference play, and Nunn has been a catalyst in his new role.
He scored 95 points during the team’s first 23 games of the season. The 6-foot-3 guard poured in a season-high 19 points against the Nittany Lions and has averaged 12.1 points per game since becoming a starter.
“Kendrick Nunn, with more minutes, provides just a little bit more explosiveness to their game that creates things for other people,” Crean said. “The way he plays is he is a very, very high-energy type of player and a lot of similarities, in my mind, to Victor Oladipo.”
While Nunn is a key contributor, he is just one of Illinois’ weapons.
Redshirt junior Rayvonte Rice scored 49 points in his two games against IU this season.
Crean said the Hoosiers have to improve their defense against Rice in Indianapolis.
“We have to do a much better job against him, but at the same time, they put 3-point shooters on the court,” he said. “They are playing some young guys now that have the benefit of playing with the older guys, the fifth-year guys or the fourth-year guys who have been through it, and they’ve been able to blend in.”
The winner of Thursday’s game gets the opportunity to face Michigan, the Big Ten regular season champion, on Friday.
However, IU remains focused on the next game on its schedule. Crean said the Hoosiers have to be locked in to what’s in front of them.
“The most important thing is that you don’t ever look ahead,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what team you have going in. If you look ahead to day two, you could be done on day one.”