Beat writer Jeff Huth takes a closer look at Sunday's game at State Farm Center.
Indiana at Illinois, 1 p.m. Sunday
Illinois (9-12, 2-6 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Ivory Crawford Jr. 5-10 15.1
G Alexis Smith Jr. 5-9 8.4
G Sarah Hartwell So. 5-10 8.2
G/F Amber Moore Sr. 5-11 15.9
C Jacqui Grant Fr. 6-3 13.9
FYI: With six three-pointers against Ohio State on Thursday, Moore moved into fourth place on the Big Ten career list with 272. She overtook Ohio State’s Caity Matter (270 from 2001 to
OFF THE BENCH
G/F Taylor Tuck Jr. 6-0 3.7
F Sarah Livingston Fr. 6-2 3.3
F Nia Oden Jr. 5-10 2.0
Indiana (15-6, 2-6 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Larryn Brooks Fr. 5-5 16.9
G Taylor Agler Fr. 5-9 8.3
G Alexis Gassion Fr. 5-10 6.6
F Tabitha Gerardot Sr. 6-1 9.6
C Simone Deloach Sr. 6-3 5.1
FYI: Brooks scored a Hoosier freshman-record 37 points on Dec. 4 in a 71-65 victory against Virginia Tech. Entering Saturday’s games, the point total remained a single-game high by a Big Ten player this season.
OFF THE BENCH
C Sasha Chaplin Gr. 6-4 7.1
G Karlee McBride Fr. 5-10 4.9
F Lyndsay Leikem Fr. 6-1 4.2
Site: State Farm Center (16,618), Champaign
Series: Indiana leads 33-30. Last meeting: Illinois 73, Indiana 60 on Feb. 23, 2013, at Champaign.
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM and WDAN 1490-AM; Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Mike Koon (analyst).
FYI: After playing four of their last five games on the road, the Illini begin a stretch Sunday of three home games in their next five.
Jeff Huth’s storylines
1. Sunday marks the start of the second half of the Big Ten race, and if any team needs a fresh beginning, it’s the Illini. Last season, Illinois had a 5-3 record at the midpoint of the conference schedule en route to a share of fifth place at 9-7. This Illini team has major work to do if it is to approach that performance. For Illinois to turn things around, coach Matt Bollant views defensive improvement and greater contributions from the bench as the top two priorities. “The biggest thing is we’ve just got to be better defensively,” said the UI coach, whose team ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense. “We have to be able to get stops and rebounds against good teams, and not let them shoot the percentages that they have.” The Illini bench has produced six or fewer points in seven of the last nine games, including four two-point games. “Our kids who come off the bench have to give us a lift and be able to help the team a little bit more than they have,” Bollant said.
2. Digging deeper on Illinois’ defensive struggles, the team’s threshold for points allowed is firmly set at 70. When the Illini have held opponents to that figure or lower, they have an 8-1 record. Which means Illinois is 1-11 when permitting at least 71 points. In searching for explanations, Bollant recognizes that taller teams are a difficult defensive matchup for an Illini roster with only two players — and one starter — taller than 6-foot. “I think our lack of size has hurt us a little bit,” said Bollant, pointing to Thursday’s 90-64 loss at Ohio State as the most recent example. The Buckeyes outscored Illinois 46-26 in the paint. “I think the matchup hurt us,” he said. “Their size is kind of a tough matchup for us at times.”
3. Like Illinois, Indiana is in the second season of a new coaching regime under Curt Miller. In the fall, the former Bowling Green State coach welcomed a recruiting class that included six scholarship freshmen, and he hasn’t been shy about putting the newcomers on the court. Brooks and Agler have started every game. Gassion has been in the opening lineup all but two times. Miller even has started five freshmen in three games. “They did a great job recruiting, and those freshmen are really skilled and can shoot the basketball,” Bollant said. Brooks, in particular, has shown she’s college-ready. The first-team all-stater from Richmond, Ky. — who twice has been selected Big Ten Freshman of the Week — ranks eighth among freshmen nationally in scoring and fifth among all Big Ten players. Brooks also has set three IU freshman single-game records and one freshman season mark (94 made free throws). “(She) makes them go, and she can knock down the three and get by (defenders) and make plays, so we have to limit her the best we can,” Bollant said.
Prediction: Illinois 67, Indiana 66
The Illini are 0-4 in Big Ten home games. The Hoosiers are 0-4 in conference road games. Something’s got to give. The home court should count for something. So should Illinois’ advantage in experience against a youthful Indiana team. (N-G prediction record: 17-4)