In the Big Ten there are no breaks. Coming off a disappointing road loss to Penn State, Illinois has to lick their wounds on the way to Bloomington, Indiana. With Indiana taking the Champaign edition of this matchup, the Illini will need to play one of their best games to return the favor.
1. Trayce Jackson-Doubled?
No Illini will forget the 35 points Trayce Jackson-Davis scored in the first matchup this season. Jackson-Davis saw one on one coverage all game between Dain Dainja, Coleman Hawkins, and even Ty Rodgers. Safe to say he and head coach Mike Woodson were more than comfortable with that, as they continually cleared out and threw him the ball. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood was also okay with it, saying “I’m not worried about his 35.”
In some ways I agree with Underwood. Indiana has a number of talented players, mostly all of whom have played with Jackson-Davis for more than a year and know where he likes the ball and where to cut. Jackson-Davis is 6’10” and a good passer, so it can be hard for even big, athletic teams to double him. The idea of letting a star get theirs and cut everyone else off (the latter of which Illinois struggled with in the first game) has been around a lot longer than that game.
On the other hand, Jackson-Davis clearly had a lot of confidence against Illinois’ front court options, a confidence that certainly can’t be hurt by 35 points in 35 minutes. Illinois is also coming off a game where the opposing team’s star player scored 41 points. I expect the Illini to mix things up a bit, but Dain to also get a fresh shot at the All-American one on one. When Hawkins is in the game, they have shown some trapping against post ups, but they will need all five guys on a string.
2. Maximum Mayer
According to Underwood, Matthew Mayer was sick for the previous matchup between these two teams. That game came at the end of six games in fifteen days marathon, and Underwood was quick to point it out. Mayer had his only scoreless game of the season, going 0-4 and only shooting one three pointer. The only other game Mayer didn’t attempt more than one three was when he had four fouls in 14 minutes at Maryland.
The National Champion at Baylor certainly has a flair for the dramatic. He led the Illini in scoring against Texas in Madison Square Garden and against Wisconsin and Iowa on the road. In one of the most hallowed venues in the sport, Illinois will need Mayer at his best to pick up a win. Indiana plays a long and athletic lineup, so easy baskets will be hard to come by. Mayer’s shot creation will be nice, but his rebounding and rim protection will be needed.
3. Gambler’s Fallacy
Many expected Illinois to be a pretty good shooting team in the preseason. Every player in their starting lineup besides Dainja have made five or more threes in a game this year. Yet, they rank 13th in the conference in three-point percentage. Since they made 8-19 three pointers the last time these teams played, the Illini have shot just 24 percent from deep. They continue to put them up at a high rate despite these struggles, currently fourth in the conference in attempts per game.
Underwood is gambling that this team will see some positive regression. With Luke Goode returning and making a three pointer against Penn State Illinois adds what was supposed to be their standstill sniper. Against Penn State RJ Melendez made his first three since the last game against Indiana. Regression for the sophomore would be a game changer as his struggles from three have really left Illinois short on sharpshooters. Just like every basketball league at any level or age, the Big Ten is a make or miss league.
4. “To Be The Man…
You have to beat the man.” Illinois has just one ‘Quad One’ win in conference play so far this season. Quad One wins go a long way on Selection Sunday. However, they aren’t a perfect measure of how good a team is. Illinois has had very high Quad One win counts each of the last two years and lost to teams with low Quad One win counts in March.
To give themselves a favorable seed and location the Illini will need a couple more here down the stretch. Thankfully even in a relatively down year the Big Ten provides a wealth of Quad One opportunities. Starting in Bloomington, Illinois has three Quad One games in their last six. Picking up this one would be a very nice start.
With Purdue losing again at Maryland on Thursday, the smallest of chances at a Big Ten title remain. The Hoosiers are no doubt aware of being just two games back against Purdue with a win. While this matchup may not be one versus two like many predicted in the preseason, there is certainly still everything to play for.
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