Reclaiming the top spot in this week's AP poll, the Indiana Hoosiers go in search of their sixth straight win as they pay a visit to the Illinois Fighting Illini in Big Ten Conference action on Thursday night.
Indiana, which held down the No. 1 ranking for the first month of the season after streaking out to a 9-0 start, brings an impressive 20-2 overall record, which includes an 8-1 league ledger, into this contest. The Hoosiers' only loss to a Big Ten rival came at home versus Wisconsin on Jan. 15 (64-59), and the five games since have all resulted in victory. Their most recent triumph was their biggest, as they topped then-No. 1 Michigan last weekend, 81-73. A showdown with No. 10 Ohio State in Columbus looms this Saturday.
The Fighting Illini spent some time in the Top-25 this season as well, but that was before its Big Ten brethren got a hold of them, saddling them with a dismal 2-7 conference mark. Despite the struggles against conference foes, John Groce's first year at the helm has seen the team win nearly twice as many games as it has lost (15-8). Illinois, which is 2-20 all-time against the No. 1 team in the nation (both victories coming at home), is 8-4 in Champaign this season, although it has lost four straight home games for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Overall, the Illini have dropped three consecutive games regardless of locale, the most recent of which being a 74-68 setback versus visiting Wisconsin last Sunday.
Indiana leads the all-time series with Illinois by the slimmest of margins, 84-83, and the Hoosiers have won two of the last three meetings after dropping the previous four. However, the Illini have claimed victory in the last three encounters in Champaign, and nine of the last 10 there as well.
The first-place Hoosiers are far and away the highest scoring team in the Big Ten, and their 83.8 ppg ranked them second in the country coming into the week. The team boasts four double-digit scorers, with All-America candidate Cody Zeller leading the way at 16.3 ppg. Zeller also paces the club in rebounding (8.3 rpg) and blocked shots (30), while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and 73.9 percent from the foul line. Victor Oladipo (14.0 ppg), Christian Watford (12.9 ppg) and Jordan Hulls (11.1 ppg) have all produced for coach Tom Crean's squad, as has sixth-man extraordinaire Will Sheehy (9.9 ppg). Defensively, IU yields 61.0 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of only .377 overall and .309 from 3-point range, and the Hoosiers own the league's top rebounding margin (+10.2). In a game chock full of stars and brimming with excitement, Zeller turned in a near-perfect performance in the win over Michigan as he shot 8-of-10 from the field, 3-of-4 from the charity stripe, in netting 19 points. He made it a double-double by grabbing 10 rebounds, one of two IU players to achieve the feat -- Watford (14 points, 10 boards) being the other. Oladipo hit for 15 points, Kevin Ferrell tacked on 14 and Hulls had 11 for the Hoosiers, who made good on 52 percent of their field goal attempts and used a 22-6 edge in points from the foul line and a 38-29 rebounding advantage to knock off the top-ranked team in the land. About the only negative from Indiana's perspective was the fact that it committed twice as many turnovers as did the Wolverines (16-8).
With an average of 72.1 ppg, Illinois ranks fifth in the Big Ten in scoring offense. Unfortunately, its average yield of 67.0 ppg ranks the team 11th. The Illini are among the top free-throw shooting teams in the conference (.718), and they own a favorable margin in turnovers (+2.5). Brandon Paul continues to lead the team in scoring with his 17.4 ppg, but he is a lackluster shooter at best, connecting on 41.3 percent of his field goal attempts, and he averages nearly three turnovers per outing. D.J. Richardson (11.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Tracy Abrams (11.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) round out the double-digit scorers for UI, which put forth an absolutely horrific effort from 3-point land in the recent loss to Wisconsin, draining a mere 2-of-13 long-range attempts as part of a 43.8 percent overall shooting performance. Joseph Bertrand was high man for the Illini with 17 points, headlining a total of five double-digit scorers for the club. The key stat from the game was the fact that the Badgers scored 28 points at the foul line compared to just 10 for the home team. UW's reserves also played an integral role in the outcome, outscoring Illinois' bench players by a 23-15 margin.