BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Nearly two months have passed since Indiana’s last win away from home.
The Hoosiers eked out a win in their first road game – 81-79 at Xavier, now ranked No. 8 – then cruised to an 86-56 victory over Miami of Ohio at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Nov. 20.
But since then, Indiana is 0-5 in arenas not named Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, outscored by an average of 14.4 points. The Hoosiers snapped their three-game losing streak on Saturday against Wisconsin, but in order to get off the NCAA Tournament bubble and climb the Big Ten standings, they’ll have to get it done on the road.
For Indiana coach Mike Woodson, it boils down to a few simple factors.
“You can’t play in spurts on the road,” Woodson said. “The one thing I do know when you play on the road, you’ve got to defend and rebound the basketball and not turn it over.”
That starts on Thursday at the State Farm Center against Illinois, one of the Big Ten’s hottest teams. Illinois shares the conference’s longest win streak – four games – with No. 3 Purdue and Iowa. The Illini dominated Minnesota 78-60 on Monday after home wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin and a road victory against Nebraska. During this stretch, Illinois has won each game by an average of 15.8 points.
This success has come in a variety of ways, too. At least one player has scored 19-plus points in each game. It started with Coleman Hawkins’ 20 points against Wisconsin, followed by 25 points from Terrence Shannon Jr. at Nebraska, Dain Dainja’s 20 points against Michigan State and Matthew Mayer’s 19 at Minnesota.
Shannon, a 6-foot-6 senior guard who transferred from Texas Tech, is the focal point of Illinois’ offense, averaging 17.6 points. He has a knack for getting to the basket, but isn’t a particularly strong 3-point shooter at 32.3 percent on 96 attempts. That mark is representative of the Illini as a whole, shooting 33.1 percent (eighth in the Big Ten) on 468 3-point attempts (second in the Big Ten).
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Along with Shannon is a trio with impressive height, length and versatility.
Matthew Mayer, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Baylor, is second at 11.1 points per game and leads the Illini with 37.4 percent 3-point shooting. His ability to handle the ball on the perimeter and rebound down low creates a tough matchup for any team.
Coleman Hawkins, a 6-foot-10 junior, adds 9.7 points and leads Illinois with 6.1 rebounds per game. Hawkins’ biggest issue has been a Big Ten-high 51 turnovers, but like Mayer, he’s active in all areas of the court.
Another Baylor transfer, 6-foot-9, 270-pound Dain Dainja anchors Illinois in the paint as one of the most efficient players in the country. Third on the team with 10.4 points and first with 5.8 rebounds per game, Dainja shoots 71.8 percent from the field – over 10 percent higher than Purdue’s Zach Edey and nearly 13 percent higher than Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis.
The second guard spot next to Shannon has been a rotation throughout the season. It started with Skyy Clark (7.0 ppg), a five-star freshman who’s no longer with the team. Freshman Sencire Harris (3.9 ppg) has started the last six games, but Underwood has opted to play freshman Jayden Epps more minutes down the stretch. Epps has scored in double figures in six of the last seven games.
“They’ve got a nice mixture of guys,” Woodson said. “They don’t have big Kofi [Cockburn], but the big fella [Dain Dainja] that’s playing inside for them is playing well for them. He does a lot of nice things from a low-post standpoint. So Trayce [Jackson-Davis] has got to come ready to play.”
The Illini have proven to beat teams in multiple ways, but it’s been their defense that has impressed Woodson lately. Opponents have averaged 61.3 points while shooting between 36.2 and 43.8 percent during Illinois’ four-game win streak.
“Their defense has picked up,” Woodson said. “I thought watching the Minnesota game they played last night, they kind of got after it from a defensive standpoint and when you turn it over they make you pay because they get the ball up and down the floor.
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