BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Illinois knows Indiana and Indiana knows Illinois.
That's the beauty of a conference tournament and facing a team for the third time this season.
"Conference tournaments a little unique because you are playing teams for the second or third time,'' Illinois coach John Groce said. "Familiarity breeds contempt. We will be familiar with their personnel and system, like they will be with ours.
"At this time of the year, it's hard to score. In conference tournaments, coaching is so good, schemes are so good, familiarity with personnel is off the charts, so guys are taking things away. I think the margin of error is small. At the end of the day, toughness and players making plays will be the difference.''
The Fighting Illini, seeded No. 9, and the eight-seeded Hoosiers will get things started at 11 a.m. today in the Big Ten Tournament being held this season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Following that game will be fifth-seeded Ohio State against Purdue, seeded No. 12.
Not only are the Big Ten teams playing for a conference tournament title, but there is also the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament that comes with a title.
"Obviously, an exciting time of the year,'' Illinois coach John Groce said. "There is nobody that loves March more than me. It's great to be playing for something this time of the year. Not everyone gets that opportunity.''
And while it seems like Illinois (18-13) will need to win the title to get a second-straight NCAA Tournament berth, there are some experts that think the Illini could get an at-large berth if they reached the championship game on Sunday.
Not bad for a team that lost eight straight in the middle of the conference season.
"I want to give our guys a lot of credit for staying the course and hanging in there,'' said Groce, whose team has won four of its last five, including a thrilling 66-63 victory at Iowa on Saturday. "I do think we are playing the best that we've played all year at this point.
"What does that get you at 11 o'clock on Thursday, hopefully a little momentum and confidence. The team that plays the best 40 minutes — or whatever it takes — is going to prevail. I do think the way we've played gives us momentum and confidence.''
Groce said that every team wants to be improving at this time of the season.
"If you can win in the process of improving, that's even better,'' he said. "We just want to keep building on how we've been playing. I don't know if that changes heading into the conference tournament.
"We want to continue to be aggressive, attack and be loose. I want them to have fun. This is a fun time of the year.''
After playing 31 games, Groce knows that there is nothing really new that either Illinois or Indiana will feature in today's contest, with the winner advancing to play the top-seeded Michigan Wolverines in a 11 a.m. contest on Friday.
"The biggest thing is getting our minds and bodies ready to compete at the highest level that we possibly can,'' he said. "You also need to have a little toughness and we will see if we can make a few plays. Those are the keys in March — whether its a conference tournament or another postseason tournament.''
While Illinois has won four of its last five contest, Indiana comes into today's game with back-to-back losses and setbacks in three of its last five games.
Indiana coach Tom Crean, who is 101-96 in five years with the Hoosiers, believes the success of the Illini can be attributed to their defense.
"I think they are just trying to control tempo,'' he said. "They are much like Ohio State in that they create a lot of turnovers with the way if you're loose with the basketball. If you drive it into traffic, they make you pay for that. They are very strong defensively. They are opportunistic with their running game. The bottom line is that they are making it hard for you to get good looks and they expose you if you over-handle. And they are rebounding at a high rate. Those are the things that stand out the most to me.''
But those are not the only reasons that the Illini have improved so much in the past three weeks.
Freshman Kendrick Nunn is averaging 12.2 points and 2.1 assists per game since being inserted as a starter, while Malcom Hill, who also entered the starting lineup in the road win at Penn State, has had three double-digit scoring games and junior center Nnanna Egwu has averaged 9.2 points during that last five games.
"Before, we maybe didn't have someone that consistently or multiple guys that could consistenly assist Ray Rice in scoring efforts,'' said Groce as Rice leads Illinois with 15.7 points per game. "Nnanna has started to find his niche a little bit and we are playing inside out more.
"And then we've had Hill and Nunn in double figures and you have a shooter like (Jon) Ekey coming off the bench.''
That was an important factor in the regular season finale against the Iowa Hawkeyes. The senior transfer from Illinois State had 12 points and he buried the game-winning 3-pointer in the final second. That was one of the factors in Groce moving Hill and Nunn into the lineup in favor of Ekey and senior Joseph Bertrand.
"I wanted to balance out the rotation,'' he said. "I don't know if there was another team in college basketball that had a bench comprised of five freshmen and a sophomore. I wanted more of a blend.''
Just like Illinois, a couple of freshmen have come on recently for Indiana (17-14).
Forward Troy Williams and guard Stanford Robinson are key contributors for the Hoosiers. Williams has scored 34 points in the past two games, while Robinson, who had 10 points in the win over Illinois on Jan. 26 in Bloomington, Ind., is averaging 9.8 points per game in the last four contests.
And then there is center Noah Vonleh, the freshman of the year in the Big Ten Conference, who is averaging 11.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
"Their guys have continued to get better,'' Groce said. "Williams has been in double figures in three of the last five games. Robinson, I think is a really good player. I don't know him at all, but just watching him on film and coaching against him, he looks like my type of guy. I would love to coach him. He is tough. He defends and he plays offense as well. He plays both ends of the floor.
"Reminiscent of Kendrick.''
As far as the early start time today, neither coach thought it would be a major factor.
"We have adjusted how we do things in preparation for that,'' Groce said. "You have to be unconditional. We can't control the dates of games or the times of games.''
Big Ten Tournament Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Indiana Hoosiers Site -- Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis When -- 11 a.m. today Records -- Illinois 18-13 overall; Indiana 17-14. Television -- Big Ten Network Radio -- Fighting Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1. Previous results -- Indiana leads the all-time series 86-85 over Illinois with each team winning on its home floor this season. The Illini claimed a 83-80 overtime victory on Dec. 31, 2013 in Champaign; and the Hoosiers won 56-46 on Jan. 26 in Bloomington.