This afternoon at 2pm, the Illini will ring in conference play by welcoming Indiana to the State Farm Center.
There is no love lost between the two teams, and Indy has to be pretty pissed off about what happened last year when Indy brought their #1 ranking into Champaign.
Oh what’s that? You don’t remember? Well allow me to remind you of one of the greatest moments in Illini history:
Thanks to this play, Tyler Griffey will forever be loved in the hearts of Illini fans.
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on. This is a new year, and both teams look rather different. Indy no longer has Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo or Christian Watford, but they’ve got a lot of scrappy youngsters and a big chip on their shoulders. Illinois no longer has D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, or Griffey (though if you look at the screen the right way Jon Ekey bears a passing resemblance), but they’ve got two-time B1G Player of the Week Rayvonte Rice and a more grownup Tracy Abrams and Nnana Egwu, as well as a more experienced Coach Groce.
So what does that mean? I have no idea.
Neither team is ranked, and in fact this time around Illinois is closer to that column than Indiana. With a record of 10-3 Indy has lost to Notre Dame, Connecticut, and Syracuse. And none of those losses are as stupid as Illinois losing at Georgia Tech. Indy has no wins against a ranked team, and a near-loss at home to LIU-Brooklyn. The only other Illini loss happened on the road to #10 Oregon, and they have a win against a ranked Missouri under their belts, giving them a record of 11-1.
This time around the playing field is much more even, but it’s hard to tell what that’s going to mean. However, it’s notable that Illinois has an RPI of 11, while Indy is down at 78. The problem is, that regardless of the coach, Illinois has the problem of playing at the level of the opponent. While Illinois beat UIC handily in the second half on Saturday, the first half was a nightmare of Flames raining 3′s from the rafters. Groce got in there at halftime and fixed this issue, but we can’t get off to that kind of start against a team like Indiana.
I imagine we’re going to have a shaky start. This will be the first conference game for a plethora of freshmen, as well as for Rice and Ekey. And it’s not just any B1G team, it’s the team they’ve been taught to hate. Also, the Illini haven’t been home since Dec. 10. I would hope the crowd would give them a boost, but it’s also going to spark some nerves because they’ll want to impress. I also have no idea what the crowd will be like, since it’s 2pm on New Year’s Eve (I would be at the game if I didn’t have a day job), and many students will either be on break, vacation or preparing for NYE festivities.
If the Illini can get out of their own way, this will be a win this afternoon. Which is the perfect way to start conference play. If we were to start out on the road at Indy I’d guarantee a loss, but I’m feeling confident about our chances. We’ve got some swagger left from the last two games, and the newbies are ready to show the Big Ten what they’re made of.
Here’s hoping what they do this afternoon makes Griffey proud.