The Indiana Hoosiers continue to chase their first ever Big Ten Conference Tournament title as the third-ranked team in the nation clashes with the 22nd-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in the semifinals of the 16th annual event at the United Center in Chicago on Saturday afternoon.
The top-seeded Hoosiers played well enough during the regular season to earn a bye through the opening round of the tournament which took place on Thursday, finally learning of their opponent once Illinois defeated Minnesota by a score of 51-49. The quick turn-around ended up hurting the Fighting Illini as the eighth-seeded squad suffered an 80-64 loss to Indiana on Friday afternoon in the semifinals.
The four-seeded Badgers also waited until yesterday to finally take part in the tournament, one that they have championed twice already and most recently in 2008 versus Illinois. Wisconsin was pitted against a Michigan squad that, despite being ranked sixth in the country, was actually the fifth seed in this year's tourney. The Badgers took care of the Wolverines in a 68-59 decision to advance to the weekend.
These teams met once during the regular season with Wisconsin winning in Bloomington by a score of 64-59 back in the middle of January which means the all-time series now numbers 94-66 in favor of Indiana. In that contest Cody Zeller had a double-double for the hosts with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but the Hoosiers ended up shooting just 37.0 percent from the field and 3-of-12 behind the 3-point line.
The winner of this meeting will end up in the title game on Sunday versus either Michigan State or Ohio State.
Wisconsin appeared to be playing itself right out of contention in the first half versus Michigan on Friday as the team shot a ridiculously low 17.2 percent from the floor (5-of-29), including 2-of-13 beyond the arc. In the second half the Badgers turned it all around with a staggering 60.7 percent from the field, including 6-of-9 beyond the arc to take the win. Traevon Jackson stepped up to provide 16 points, Ben Brust tacked on 14 and eight boards, followed by Ryan Evans with 12 points, six boards and six assists.
Jackson has been the leading scorer for Wisconsin in each of the last two games, yet on the season overall he's responded with just 6.8 ppg, far off the pace set by Brust (11.4 ppg) and Jared Berggren (11.3 ppg), who are typically among the top scorers for the program. Evans (10.2 ppg) has been a solid performer in the paint for Wisconsin with his 7.4 rpg, while Berggren is close behind with 7.0 rpg and has logged almost half of the team's blocked shots with 65.
The defense for Indiana suffocated Illinois over the first 20 minutes of action on Friday, limiting the Fighting Illini to a mere seven field goals and 25.9 percent accuracy from the floor overall, en route to the 16-point win. The Hoosiers scored the first points of the day and never looked back as Zeller erupted for 24 points and nine rebounds, shooting 9-of-11 from the floor and a perfect 6-of-6 at the free-throw line. Christian Watford responded with 15 points, Kevin Ferrell and Victor Oladipo put up 12 apiece and Will Sheehey added 11 points off the bench. Oladipo also cleared 11 rebounds to give Indiana a 38-26 edge on the glass.
Many believe Oladipo should have been the player of the year in the Big Ten and for good reason since he's been scoring 13.7 ppg and clearing 6.4 rpg, while shooting 61.0 percent from the field, not to mention making 70 steals through 32 contests. At the same time, Zeller probably stole some of his thunder as the big man leads the Hoosiers with 17.0 ppg and 8.1 rpg, as Indiana outscores the competition by a hefty 18.5 ppg and is beating them on the glass by more than eight per contest.