The strength of the Hoosiers became their Achilles heel in the 74-57 loss to No. 18 Illinois on Saturday.
Despite dealing with a mammoth-sized center in Kofi Cockburn clogging up the paint, the Indiana offense attempted to start the game by going inside. The first play was designed to get Trayce Jackson-Davis an early look against Cockburn. Seemingly bothered by Cockburn’s size and athleticism, he rushed the shot and threw a hard brick off the backboard. Then IU went to Race Thompson, who would have his first shot attempt blocked.
That set the tone for the day.
“I mean, you see him. He’s a big body down there,” said Thompson of Cockburn’s presence in the paint.
“I mean, on — on the defensive end, he’s definitely tough. He’s a big body. He’s hard to get around. He’s heavy, he’s strong. So, I mean, respect to him. He’s a good player.”
From there it would not get any easier for the duo on either end of the floor. The Illini stuck with their inside-out game and threw the ball into Cockburn, who immediately backed down and drew the foul on Jackson-Davis. Then the preseason All-American picked up a quick second foul when he bailed out Alfonso Plummer by fouling him on a deep two.
While Jackson-Davis was cemented to the bench with foul trouble in an instant replay of the Purdue game, other players stepped up. Michael Durr, yet again, was asked to slow down an opposing giant.
Durr was for the most part able to match the physicality of Cockburn and hold him to just five points on 2-of-7 shooting from the field in the first half. But Durr would pick up three fouls in the early going, which would keep him on the bench.
“I thought Mike and those guys played well,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “But, you know, Mike, he was in foul trouble, as well. Ended up fouling out. But, you know, I thought for the most part, we did a pretty good job on the big guy until late. I thought we played a beautiful first half.”
Xavier Johnson took the lead for the offense. He did not particularly shoot well but provided constant energy and intensity on the court. On one of his misses, Johnson followed up his shot and raced to the loose ball then laid in a reverse over Cockburn.
The Pitt transfer finished with nine points and five boards in the first half. Alongside Parker Stewart, who started the game hot by going 3-of-5 with two threes in the first half, the two were able to bring the Hoosiers into halftime up two points. But then the offense hit a wall in the second half.
After the break, the Hoosiers force-fed the ball inside to get Trayce Jackson-Davis reinserted into the game. They resorted to going back to playing to their strengths but it failed.
After sitting for the last 15-minutes of the first half, Jackson-Davis tried to force himself into the game instead of letting it come to him. His first touch of the half was similar to his first touch of the game. He rushed his post move and threw his hook off the backboard. He then showed signs of discombobulation from the extended break by tripping over his own feet and losing the ball.
“Well, he didn’t play particularly well,” Woodson said of Jackson-Davis.
The frontcourt as a unit was no better. Together they managed to score a combined 23 points but shot 9-of-25. Thompson finished with 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting and missed all of his three-point attempts. Jackson-Davis finished with just six points on 3-of-9 shooting. They were both affected by the big man in the middle.
“Yeah, definitely. I missed some chippies,” said Thompson. “I wish I could have them back. I’m frustrated with myself. We got to get back to work I can’t hang my head on that. So, really, that’s all it is. I wish I could have them back, but it’s too late now. We got to go to Northwestern.”
Cockburn camped out in the paint all day long defensively, daring Jackson-Davis to shoot. However, he never let it fly. Instead, he kept trying to force his way into the paint against his seven-foot, 285-pound opponent.
“He’s still — you know, he’s just not comfortable doing it. I mean, he shoots some in practice, but he’s — you know, we’re not asking him to shoot threes,” claimed Woodson.
“You know, but he can make — I think he can make the 10, to 16, 17-foot shot. But he just won’t shoot them. I got to keep working with him. That’s on me.”
Despite the ineffectiveness in the middle, it was also the perimeter play that doomed the Hoosiers. The explosive guards of Illinois did not have to rely on Cockburn and were able to create their own shots. Trent Frazier showcased that with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting with three threes as the Indiana backcourt struggled to contain him.
The Hoosiers were hanging tough until Jacob Grandison hit back-to-back threes en route to a 6-0 run. The second Grandison three gave Illinois its first lead of the second half with 11:54 remaining. The Illini run ballooned to 22-5 from there.
The Fighting Illini were able to convert on 10-of-23 three-point attempts for 43.5 percent, including four during that decisive second half stretch.
“Well, when we’ve lost games, that’s been either rebounding and, you know, not defending the three-point line. And I thought we were pretty good on the boards tonight,” said Woodson.
“But the three-point shot got away from us again tonight. I thought the two big threes that Jacob hit was really the — the turning point in the — in the down spiral of our ball club after he made two threes. Because we never really recovered from it.”
In contrast, the Hoosiers shot 3-of-13 for 23.1 percent from deep. Only Johnson and Stewart were able to hit from deep. Stewart started the game 2-of-2 from beyond the arc before missing his two attempts in the second half.
Miller Kopp, who has made 146 career three-pointers, did not attempt any shots in 16 minutes of play. He was brought in by Woodson to help the team do exactly that.
“Well, again, I — we’re not telling him not to shoot,” Woodson spoke of Kopp. “You know, and again, defensively, they know he can shoot and they won’t leave him. So it forces someone else to shoot.”
“I thought Parker had some good looks the first half and didn’t make his shots in the second half.”
For the Hoosiers, a trend continued with their frequent inability to put together a complete game. Illinois outscored IU 40-21 after halftime.
“I didn’t think we executed too particularly well in the first half, but still came in up two,” added Woodson. “But, you know, you got to give them credit. You know, they put a solid 40-minute ball game together and we put a 20-minute ball game together.
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