Big Ten Tournament Preview: Indiana vs Illinois

Rayvonte Rice and Will Sheehey will be important combatants in this game...duh. - Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Two teams with the slimmest of bubble chances face off on Thursday to open up the Big Ten Tournament.

Who: #8 Indiana vs. #9 Illinois

What: Big Ten Tournament 1st Round Matchup

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana

When: Thursday, March 13th at 12 pm EST/11 am CST on Big Ten Network

Why: Because someone has to play Michigan in the second round, so why not one of these underachievers?

Numbers of Importance:

Indiana Hoosiers Team Illinois Fighting Illini
17-14 Record 18-13
NR Ranking NR
91 RPI 68
LOL doesn't matter BPI LOL doesn't matter
66 KenPom 65
56 Sagarin 60

Skinny:

At different points throughout the season, both Indiana and Illinois seemed primed to make a run to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for both teams, that point in the season is not now. Both teams are on the bubble of being on the bubble and need an impressive showing (read: getting to the Big Ten Tournament finals or better, winning the Big Ten Tournament and removing all doubt) to draw interest from the selection committee. Indiana comes into the matchup on a two game losing streak, but the two games prior to that saw them beat ranked Iowa and Ohio State squads. If you know which Indiana team will show up in Indy, please comment and then apply for a job here, because you must be a wizard. Illinois rolls into Indy having won four of their last five, including a buzzer beating victory at Iowa to end the season. Illinois appears to have righted the ship after their eight game (!!!) conference losing streak in January and some of February, and come into this tournament with momentum. Let's take a look at some of the key players that will decide which group of ragtag misfits moves on to play Michigan.

Projected Starting Lineup:

Indiana Hoosiers Position Illinois Fighting Illini
Yogi Ferrell G/G Rayvonte Rice
Stanford Robinson G/G Tracy Abrams
Will Sheehey F/G Kendrick Nunn
Troy Williams F/G Malcolm Hill
Noah Vonleh C/C Nnanna Egwu

I'm going to be completely honest with you guys, which I hope you expect from us here at BT Powerhouse, and tell you that I have no idea what the Indiana starting five is going to look like. I looked at past starting fives from the end of the season, with Vonleh, without Vonleh, sometimes Austin Etherington started and other times he played three minutes, what I'm trying to say is I was confused. This is my best guess at an IU starting lineup, but I'd love if any IU fans had more insight on this in the comments.

Indiana Players to Watch:

Noah Vonleh: The Big Ten's freshman of the year is still recovering from a left foot injury that caused him to miss two games near the end of the season, and come off the bench in Indiana's season finale. He played 21 minutes and grabbed eight rebounds to go along with seven points, so all signs point him being ready to rock and roll Thursday morning. The bouncy freshman lead the B1G in rebounds per game (9.1) by 1.6 over the second place finisher, Adreian Payne, and also was second on the team in scoring with 11.4 points per game. His matchup down low with Nnanna Egwu will be crucial in which team wins the rebounding battle. Where Vonleh presents a matchup problem is in his ability to stretch Egwu's defense out to the three point line, where Vonleh has made over half of his three point attempts.

Troy Williams: Before you go screaming about Yogi Ferrell, I just assume you all know to be watching him. He's good and he's the point guard, so he'll have the ball a lot. Watch Yogi Ferrell. But I also want you to pay attention to freshman forward Troy Williams. He saw his playing time diminish a bit at the start of conference play, as it often does for freshman who aren't fully prepared for the PHYSICAL B1G THREE YARDS AND A CLOUD OF DUST style of play, but he remained patient and plays an extremely prominent role for the Hoosiers here at the end of the year. He has scored in double figures in four of his last nine games (including his last two in a row) and is second on the team in rebounding, averaging 4.4 per game. Against an Illinois team that likes to run four guards at a time, Williams could be a major factor in helping Vonleh dominate the boards.

Illinois Players to Watch:

Kendrick Nunn: Yet another freshman in the "Players to Watch" section! Nunn has been a revelation for the Illini during conference play, and he and fellow freshman Malcolm Hill being inserted into the starting lineup have been a major reason for Illionois' late season turnaround. FUN FACT ALERT: In games in which Nunn has played 30 minutes or more, Illinois is 5-3 (all conference games, by the way). In all other games THEY ARE TERRIBLE! In Big Ten play, Nunn has averaged 8.6 points per game and shot 47.1% from the field. He's a game changer, and can help take some of the scoring responsibilities away from Rayvonte Rice. Which leads me to my next point!

Rayvonte Rice: Rice is what we would call a "chucker" if he wasn't so damn good at making most of his "chucks." He was fifth in the conference in field goal attempts, but also 10th in the conference in field goal percentage! And honestly, if you watched some of Illinois' games earlier this year, I wouldn't have let anyone else shoot if I were him either. Rice pretty much did it all for Illinois this year; he was the team leader in points, rebounds, and steals per game and was in the top-10 in the conference for all three categories. I feel pretty safe in saying, if Rice has an off game on Thursday, Illinois is not going to win.

Prediction: Illinois beat Indiana in Champaign in OT to start the conference season back on December 31st and Indiana beat Illinois in Bloomington by 10 a month later. Where does that leave us? It leaves us at 74-71, with Indiana coming out on top due to a Yogi Ferrell late three pointer. TAKE IT TO YOUR BOOKIE AND THANK ME LATER!

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