Indiana has been successful in recent games because it has brought a ton of energy from the start. Its new-look lineup that includes Freddie McSwain Jr. and Devonte Green has helped the Hoosiers get off to fast starts that set the tone for the game.
That didn't happen Wednesday. The Hoosiers came out flat in front of a half-empty student section. It was obvious Indiana didn't have the same energy early when Illinois grabbed four offensive rebounds in the first two minutes. Coach Archie Miller subbed out both McSwain and Green within the first few minutes, hoping to find a spark elsewhere.
He got it in the form of freshman Justin Smith. Smith has seen his role shrink of late, but he was the MVP of the first half for the Hoosiers. He scored eight points, all in different ways (a driving layup with a foul, a backdoor cut, a 17-foot jumper) and helped erase an early Illinois lead.
The Illini themselves were also instrumental in helping the Hoosiers back into the game. Illinois didn't take advantage of the Hoosiers' slow start because it couldn't seem to hit an open jump shot. As Indiana climbed back into the game, Illinois' shooting woes got worse.
The turning point of the half came midway through. After falling behind 12-8, the Hoosiers ripped off an 18-2 run to race in front 26-14 with 7:20 to go. The run featured six points from Smith and five from fellow freshman Aljami Durham, who hit a triple for the third straight game after having just one in his previous 15 contests.
On defense, the Indiana defense was stifling, holding the Illini scoreless for close to six minutes. During this stretch, Illinois missed six straight shots and turned the ball over four times. Everything was difficult for the Illini, but they didn't make open shots when they did have them. The visitors shot 32 percent from the field in the half.
Meanwhile, Indiana's turnover issues from the first matchup between these teams were somewhat fixed. The Hoosiers threw several ill-advised passes against Illinois' pressure defense early, but settled down as the half went on. They eventually turned the ball over eight times, although four came from Robert Johnson.
This has not been pretty basketball. Indiana has not had the ball movement it showed against Rutgers and Minnesota. Still, it leads comfortably because the fight on defense has been there for the third straight game. Now it needs to close the door, something it failed to do the first time these teams met.