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'You've got to go and take it:' Indiana restarts Big Ten play vs. Illinois looking to keep rolling

After a 2-0 start to Big Ten play dating back to the beginning part of December, the Hoosiers have put themselves in a good spot with conference play restarting Thursday.

Indiana has accumulated five top-50 KenPom wins and has lost just two games overall, both on the road. While there have been obstacles (injuries most notably), getting to its 11-2 mark is an impressive feat for a team that has shown flashes of being a great team, and parts of being a team that is a work in progress. Maybe both of those statements are factual.

Yet, getting those 11 wins and five against top-50 teams, including Butler, Marquette and Louisville will help this team down the road and it’s something that can’t be taken away from this team no matter where they may lie in March.. A big reason why the Hoosiers have been so successful is due to the play of senior forward Juwan Morgan. He says this stretch of basketball is among the best stretches he’s ever played.

“I really think I just try to get better from month to month, just keep trying to stack good games and good practices and just get better and better,” Morgan said. “So I don't think it will be my best ever, but I think it's up there.”

If Indiana can continue to get the type of play they’ve gotten out of Morgan through the first two months of the season, they will be a tough matchup for any opponent. He’s nearly averaging a double-double with just over 16 points per game to go along with just under eight rebounds per contest. He’s the leading rebounder, but not the leading scorer.

That honor, at this point, goes to freshman Romeo Langford. He forms the formidable duo with Morgan that combines to average over 30 points per game for Indiana. While the Hoosiers can lean on Morgan to a certain extent, Langford will be tested every time he takes the court in the Big Ten, which in 2019 could arguably the toughest conference in America.

The Hoosiers know the conference is going to be a grind this season, and Morgan wants his teammates, especially the incomers, to realize nothing will come easy.

“I'd say it's going to be the hardest stretch of basketball they're going to have to play,” Morgan said. “It's going to be just as mental as it is physical, just each and every game. It'll never be easy. I told them don't expect anything to really just come to you. You've got to go and take it.”

That grind restarts again Thursday at Assembly Hall when Illinois pays a visit to Bloomington. The Fighting Illini come in with a 4-9 record and are winless in two games in the conference. However, the Illini have been tested this season and have lost plenty of close games as of late.

The other part that comes with Illinois is the style of play it implements. The Illini thrive on muddling up the game and making it difficult for opponents when they are the Illini are playing defense. With Indiana freshman guard Rob Phinisee set to miss another game with a concussion, guard Devonte Green will play a big role and will have to keep his turnovers to a minimum to be successful.

“Illinois thrives on defense, their steals,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “They drive on their transition game, and it's the whole key, so to speak, is being able to function offensively with being able to find a way to get some quality shots and being able to get some numbers. It's not an easy thing to do, especially if you haven't played them ever. You've got young guys in the game; it's the first time they've seen it.”

With a road trip to Michigan lurking on Sunday and six of the next nine games on the road for the Hoosiers, Thursday will be an important test for the Hoosiers. Indiana has played in seemingly every type of game so far: blowouts, close games and everything in between.

Now with conference play restarting, the Hoosiers think that could be an advantage.

“I think winning close games like that just builds toughness moving forward, being in those situations,” senior forward Evan Fitzner said. “It's something you can't really simulate in practice, so I think it's good when we've been in so many of those close games. I don't know, just to have that experience moving forward will help us down the road in Big Ten and then hopefully in March, too.”

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