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Jan 26, 2024 3:08 am

No. 10 Illinois, Indiana await resurgence from key seniors

Indiana coach Mike Woodson sat in front of the TV on Wednesday and watched Northwestern and Illinois match shot for shot for 45 minutes.

Judging by the smile Woodson flashed while describing what he saw, the old shooting guard definitely appreciated seeing two teams playing at such an elite level on offense.

While No. 10 Illinois came out on the wrong end of the 96-91 final in overtime, it didn’t change Woodson’s regard for the Illini as Indiana prepares for a Big Ten matchup on Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

“We’ve got to go in with the mindset that we’ve got to try to play at that same level — because Illinois is playing very, very well right now,” Woodson said. “We’ve got to be ready to commit ourselves for 40 minutes.

“They’re more different than any team we’ve played in college basketball this season. They basically are playing small ball with (Coleman) Hawkins at the 5. That’s what you’re going to get a dose of — small basketball.”

Considering Indiana (12-7, 4-4 Big Ten) relies on the biggest lineup in the Big Ten — presuming 7-footer Kel’el Ware can play after missing the Jan. 19 loss at then-No. 11 Wisconsin with an ankle injury — Saturday’s game promises to be quite a contrast in size and styles.

Surely Indiana learned from studying Illinois’ losses — to Marquette, Tennessee, Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern — that the Illini defense is susceptible to brilliant point guard play. On Wednesday, for example, the Wildcats’ Boo Buie piled up a game-high 29 points with seven assists and either sank or set up every crucial shot.

With that in mind, Woodson would love it if the old Xavier Johnson showed up for the game Saturday. Indiana’s sixth-year point guard, who missed all seven games in December with a left foot injury, is dealing with the worst stretch of his career.

Over his past four games, Johnson has posted a total of 12 points, five assists and nine turnovers over 84 minutes while shooting 3-for-15 from the field, including an 0-for-6 showing from 3-point range. His confidence has shrunk to the point where Woodson brought him off the bench the last three games.

“Since the injuries, he has been up and down,” said Woodson, also referring to the broken right foot that cost him the final three months of last season. “He’s been soul-searching. I’m frustrated. Not in a bad way — meaning for him because this is his last go-round.

“What he’s gone through in the last year and a half has been tough. He’s had a few good days of practice. I’m just going to keep encouraging him and hopefully we’ll get the old ‘X’ back because we’re going to need him as we continue this journey throughout the Big Ten.”

It’s not quite the same thing, but Illinois (14-5, 5-3) is waiting to get the old Terrence Shannon Jr. back. The fifth-year wing, who played at an All-American level in November and December, missed six games while serving an indefinite suspension due to a pending rape charge in Kansas.

Shannon was reinstated to the team Jan. 19 when a federal judge truncated his suspension with a preliminary injunction.

In two games since returning, the powerful and speedy left-hander has posted solid numbers — a total of 28 points, seven assists and three steals. However, he also has committed six turnovers and canned just 1 of 10 3-point attempts as he doesn’t quite yet have his playing legs.

When will that come?

“Time,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Time. He was out for a month. Time.”

–Field Level Media

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