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What to Watch For: Indiana searching for NCAA Tournament insurance at Illinois

Indiana has lost a bit of its momentum after taking a punch to the gut in a 59-47 loss at Purdue.

Al Durham, guarded by Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic, looks to pass on Thursday in West Lafayette. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

The now 18-10 Hoosiers had one of their worst offensive showings of the season, tying their season-low output in scoring. Poor shot selection, lack of ball movement and extended scoring droughts defined Indiana’s offensive struggles.

In the heat of the moment, and in consideration of it being Indiana’s seventh consecutive loss to its rival, the Purdue loss puts a damper over Indiana’s recent success. At the same time, the Hoosiers are in a safe spot right now for their NCAA Tournament outlook and have plenty of time to fix their offensive execution.

Indiana has three games remaining and the next one comes Sunday at Illinois for the team’s last true road game of the year.

Illinois has been playing good basketball as of late, winning its last three games and owning a record of 19-9. The Illini are in a four-way tie for second place in the Big Ten with an 11-6 conference record.

The records are similar, and the Fighting Illini are statistically similar to Indiana on paper. Both teams average the same exact amount of points per game at 72.5 and they both shoot nearly the same field-goal percentage of 45 percent from Indiana and 44 percent from Illinois.

Additionally, both squads put up 13 assists per game as well.

Electric young talent

Illinois’ offense is centered around two young stars in Ayo Dosunmu and impact freshman center Kofi Cockburn. Dosunmu is an electric guard who leads the team in scoring with 16.4 points per game — which is fifth most in the conference — and is the team’s assist leader as well with 86 total. The speedy guard excels at getting to the rim and makes 48 percent of his shots.

Cockburn is a dominant center with a 7-foot, 290-pound stature making him a load to deal with down low. The freshman converts on 52 percent of his looks and nearly averages a double-double with 13.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

Along with Dosunumu and Cockburn, Illinois has a handful of other valuable contributors in guards of senior Andres Feliz, junior Trent Frazier and sophomore Alan Griffin. Feliz scores about 10 points per game with Frazier and Griffin each averaging about nine.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Da’Monte Williams and Kipper Nichols round out Illinois’ usual eight-man rotation. Bezhanishvili is 6-foot-9 and Nichols is 6-foot-6, but for the most part Illinois is very guard-heavy and doesn’t have a ton of height overall.

Keys to victory inside and out

Handling the bigs that Illinois does have, especially Cockburn, will be a serious challenge though for IU. Trevion Williams of Purdue got the best of Indiana and particularly Trayce Jackson-Davis in IU’s loss on Thursday. Williams isn’t as tall as Cockburn, but he is very similar and reminiscent of him in playing style and physical build.

When it comes to the Illinois guards, Indiana will prioritize taking away their ability to drive to the basket, as most of them are not reliable shooters from distance. Alan Griffin will be the one to focus on as he is far-and-away Illinois’ best 3-point shooter, making 42.7 percent of his shots from deep.

IU has had plenty of recent success over Illinois, winning six of the past seven over the Illini and going 2-0 against them a year ago.

Low risk, high reward for tournament resume

In the big picture, like the Purdue game, Illinois is another great opportunity for Indiana to strengthen its resume before the tournament.

With a 2-6 road record, notching another road win against a quality opponent would do wonders to help IU. Even if IU were to lose the game, as long as the team doesn’t get blown out, Indiana’s NCAA Tournament chances won’t be all that harmed.

If that were the case, IU’s need to take care of business in its last two games at home next week against Minnesota and Wisconsin increase.

At the end of the day, the Illinois matchup can only help IU’s situation as long as the Hoosiers don’t lose badly. A win helps tremendously while a modest road loss to a very talented team will not hurt Indiana.

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