Five Things: Illinois outlasts Indiana


Maybe you missed Illinois’ 83-80 overtime victory over Indiana in Champaign, Ill., on New Year’s Eve. I feel sorry for you. You missed a great game.

The matchup between middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams was a fitting battle for the beginning of conference play. There were 17 ties. Rayvonte Rice (29 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals) went off. Yogi Ferrell (30 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) was unstoppable -- excluding his 6 turnovers.

It was a fiery start to conference basketball.

Here are five observations from that game ...

1. Why didn’t Ferrell get the ball at the end of regulation? Rice had shielded Ferrell on Indiana’s final play of regulation. Evan Gordon got the ball and had a solid look after a nice pump-fake. But Ferrell, you’d think, would be the guy that Tom Crean would find in that situation, even if a timeout was necessary to conjure up a way to make that happen. It didn’t happen. Gordon missed a shot at the buzzer and the Hoosiers lost in overtime. No guarantees that Ferrell would have hit the shot or that his teammates would have found him after a timeout, but we’ll never know either way.

2. Indiana is in good hands: Speaking of Ferrell, the sophomore was excellent throughout the afternoon. His turnovers were troubling. But that wasn’t on him alone. The Hoosiers committed 23 turnovers. And yet, they were still alive in the final minute of a road game against a potential NCAA tourney squad. That’s impressive for a young team in hostile territory. Ferrell’s leadership was positive, too. He’s a star. And freshman Noah Vonleh (16 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks) is a 6-10, 240-pound force. Will Sheehey’s experience helps. Indiana should continue to improve in the coming weeks.

3.Illinois could be dangerous: John Groce’s starting rotation features three upperclassmen (Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu) and two transfers (Rice and Jon Ekey). His bench is occupied by freshmen. Even with all of those new pieces, the program is beginning to jell, now that it has had a few months together. You can see the progress with this Illinois team that features a star in Rice and a strong supporting cast. Illinois is defending well (27th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), and it already has a win over top-25 Missouri. Groce might have a Big Ten sleeper.

4. The Big Ten is stacked: The Big Ten has held the “best conference in America” title in recent years, according to regular-season finishes of course. It is still searching for its first national title since 2000. But it’s one of the country’s best again in 2013-14. And Tuesday’s matchup was another showcase for the league’s gantlet. It won’t be easy to win in Champaign. Or Bloomington, Ind. Or West Lafayette, Ind. (Ohio State struggled early in a 78-69 win over Purdue earlier in the day). Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State are the top teams in the league right now. But the championship might be decided by the wins and/or losses acquired by the contenders against some of the league’s solid midtier squads, especially when they face those teams on the road. Few opportunities for easy wins in this conference.

5. Critical flaws for both: Somehow, Illinois went 2-for-17 from the 3-point line and still won. Groce’s squad entered the game with a 33.5 percent clip from beyond the arc, one of the lowest marks in the country. Those problems from the perimeter weren’t fatal against the Hoosiers but they could hurt Illinois in the future. And Indiana is 309th in turnover percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. Those ballhandling challenges could be the difference in future matchups. Turnovers were clearly an issue against Illinois, although the Hoosiers kept the game tight. But they lost. Indiana is a team with the potential to play with some of the top squads in the Big Ten. But the Hoosiers will squander future opportunities if they continue to commit turnovers at this rate.