HQ prediction: Illinois 67, Indiana 66
No. 9 Illinois vs. No. 8 Indiana,
11 a.m. today
Illinois (18-13, 7-11 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 10.5
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 6.2
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 15.7
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 4.0
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 7.1
FYI: In two games against the Hoosiers this season, Rice is averaging 24.5 points, including 29 in the first meeting, which tied a career high.
OFF THE BENCH
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 8.9
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 7.4
G Jaylon Tate Fr. 6-3 2.0
Indiana (17-14, 7-11 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Yogi Ferrell So. 6-0 17.4
G Will Sheehey Sr. 6-7 11.4
G Stanford Robinson Fr. 6-4 6.4
F Troy Williams Fr. 6-7 7.2
F Noah Vonleh Fr. 6-10 11.4
FYI: Vonleh, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, leads the league in rebounding (9.1) and had a league-high 10 double-doubles this season.
OFF THE BENCH
G Evan Gordon Sr. 6-0 5.7
F Jeremy Hollowell So. 6-8 5.9
F Devin Davis Fr. 6-7 2.4
Site: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (18,345), Indianapolis
TV: BTN — Kevin Kugler (play-by-play) and former Illini Stephen Bardo (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Indiana leads 86-85. Last meeting: Indiana 56, Illinois 46; Jan. 26 (Bloomington).
FYI: This is the third straight year in which Illinois will play on Thursday at the Big Ten tournament, but this is only its sixth appearance in the opening round during the 17-year history of the tournament.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
1 How much larger is the chip on Nnanna Egwu’s shoulder entering the postseason? Illinois’ center wasn’t among the five players voted to the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team announced Monday, much to the surprise of his coach. “Shocked,” John Groce said when asked his reaction to Egwu’s snub. “Every coach has their own ballot and their own opinion. He was certainly on my ballot.” Egwu leads the Illini and ranks second in the Big Ten with 2.1 blocked shots per game, and he’s a big reason the Illini rank second in the league in scoring defense (62.8 points per game). But his contributions go beyond the stat sheet. “His intelligence, how great he is with scouting. He covers up a multitude of sins,” Groce said. “He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever coached. I’ve had the chance to coach some great ones. He means a lot to our team and our defense. In my opinion I think he’s one of the top five defenders in the league and deserved an opportunity to be on that team.”
2 No one on the Illinois roster has as much conference tournament experience as Jon Ekey, though the fifth-year senior will be playing in his first Big Ten tournament game today in Indianapolis. Ekey played in six Missouri Valley Conference tournaments during his career at Illinois State, helping the Redbirds to a championship-game appearance as a sophomore in 2012. Ekey played in last year’s tournament, losing to Wichita State in the semifinals in St. Louis. Part of his role this week is preparing his younger teammates for the mental aspect of the day-to-day grind of tournament play. “The days leading up to it, playing four games in four days or three in three days, I’ve done that,” said Ekey, who this week was named the UI’s Student-Athlete of the Week, joining Nunn as the only basketball players honored this season. “Just knowing what it takes, you’ve got to start getting your body ready a few days before it. Right after a game and getting ready for the next one, knowing what the crowds will be like and all that.” At 23 years old, Ekey’s legs might not be as fresh during a long tournament run as they used to be, but the veteran has a plan in place. “I don’t know if they can keep up anymore, but hopefully those cold baths can get them ready. I might have to take it easy.”
3 The previous two meetings between these rivals occurred prior to Groce shuffling the starting lineup, replacing Ekey and Bertrand with Nunn and Hill. The freshmen have added some energy to the regular rotation and will provide a different look for the Hoosiers today in the home arena of the Indiana Pacers. What it has done is added some balance to the lineup with multiple players who are able to score playing the bulk of the minutes as starters along with some firepower in the seniors coming off the bench. “Offensively, we maybe didn’t have somebody, or multiple guys, who could consistently assist Ray Rice in scoring efforts. Nnanna’s started to find his niche a little bit, we’re playing inside-out more. He’s been good, he seems very confident down there, he’s made some big baskets for us. During this stretch run he’s averaged eight or nine points per game,” Groce said. “Hill and Nunn have been in double figures. You’ve got a shooter like Ekey coming off the bench. We all know Joe is capable of getting double figures in a game. On that side of the ball, it’s helped us for sure.”
Illinois 67, Indiana 66
Though last year’s game against the Hoosiers didn’t work out in their favor, the Illini have fared well against their rivals, owning a 5-2 mark against them in Big Ten tournament play. With Indiana standing in the way of another shot at mighty Michigan in the quarterfinals, the Illini young and old appear excited for the challenge that lies ahead in playing for an opportunity to reach a postseason tournament. This stage, March basketball, can be intimidating for some, particularly a group as young and inexperienced in this environment as Illinois’, but leading up to today’s tournament opener, the coaching staff has tried its best to keep the good vibes of the last month flowing. “I want them to have fun. This is a fun time of year to have an opportunity to be playing for something,” Groce said. “The way that they’ve handled themselves, the way they’ve played here lately really speaks a lot to their DNA and who they are as a team and individually as people.” The Illini are surging at the right time and their head coach might have something to do with that. In his five previous conference tournaments as a head coach, Groce’s teams have never lost on the tournament’s opening day, including two MAC tournament championships at Ohio. “There’s nobody that loves March more than me,” Groce said. “Not everyone gets the opportunity to be playing for something this time of year. I want to give our guys a lot of credit for staying the course and staying in there. I do think we’re playing the best that we’ve played all year.” (N-G prediction record: 23-8).