The top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers get their first taste of Big Ten Conference Tournament action this year, as they tangle with the eighth-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini in the first game of Friday's quarterfinal round from the United Center.
Illinois got off to a tremendous start to the 2012-13 season, winning its first 12 games to claim a spot among the nationally-ranked, but conference play wasn't overly kind to the Illini as they wound up going just 8-10 against the rest of the Big Ten. UI, which owns 24 Big Ten Tournament victories, one more than Ohio State for the most ever, lost its final two games of the regular season, but took out No. 9 seed Minnesota in Thursday's opening round, 51-49, to earn its spot in today's clash.
Indiana began the campaign as the No. 1 team in the country, and early wins over the likes of Georgia, Georgetown and North Carolina had the team undefeated going into a Dec. 15 clash with Butler. The Hoosiers would suffer their first loss of the season against their in-state rival (88-86 in OT), but responded by winning their next six before loss No. 2 occurred, their first in conference play versus Wisconsin (64-59) on Jan. 15. IU would go on to win nine of its next 10, but it hit a rough patch in the final two weeks, splitting four games, although its finale resulted in a 72-71 win at Michigan.
The all-time series between Illinois and Indiana is knotted at 84-84, and it was the former that prevailed in the only regular-season meeting between the two by taking a 74-72 decision in Champaign on Feb. 7. This bout marks the seventh encounter between the two in the Big Ten Tournament, with the Illini winning five of the first six.
The winner of this bout returns for Saturday's semifinals to face the survivor of the Michigan/Wisconsin matchup.
Illinois head coach John Groce has a pair of All-Big Ten Third-Teamers on which to rely most nights, as Brandon Paul (16.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.9 apg) and D.J. Richardson (12.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 47 steals) have both been productive performers all season long, and all stats represented being for the regular season only. Paul was a man possessed in Thursday's opening-round win over Minnesota, hitting for a game-high 25 points on the strength of four 3- pointers. As a team, the Illini shot just 32.1 percent from the field, but took full advantage of the Golden Gophers' carelessness with the basketball by scoring 21 points off 19 turnovers. Illinois, which committed only six giveaways itself, won the game despite going just 6-of-25 from beyond the arc (.240), and losing the battle on the boards (38-26). Richardson went just 2- of-12 from the field (six points), both of which were 3-pointers.
The Hoosiers lead the conference and rank third nationally in scoring with an average of 80.8 ppg, and the team put two players on the All-Big Ten First Team in Cody Zeller (16.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Victor Oladipo (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), and one on the Third Team in Christian Watford (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg). In addition, Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell (7.7 ppg, 4.3 apg) earned All-Freshman Team honors. Indiana is tied for the national lead in free throws made per game (19.2), and ranks second in scoring margin (+18.5), third in scoring (80.8 ppg) and 3-point field goal percentage (.418), and ninth in rebounding margin (+8.0). Indiana's Big Ten regular-season title is its first outright since 1993, and its first of any kind since 2002. The Hoosiers are hoping to secure a No. 1 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, which begins next week.