Monday January 19th, 2015

Wisconsin and Maryland have clearly separated themselves from the pack in the Big Ten. After that, there’s a considerable gap that hasn’t existed in some time in the conference. Michigan hasn’t reloaded after losing Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary in the last two years. Iowa beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but that’s its only win over a team that is currently ranked. Michigan State simply is not the usual brand of Michigan State we’re used to seeing under Tom Izzo. Ohio State’s best win all season is over Illinois.

Could Indiana be the conference’s third-best team?

The Hoosiers buttressed their case with an 80-74 win over Illinois in Champaign on Sunday. They’re now 4-1 in the Big Ten, tied with Wisconsin, Maryland and Iowa in the loss column, and a half game behind the Terrapins for first place. It was their third win on the road in the conference, and third over a team with a top-50 RPI.

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Winning three games away from home in the first three weeks of conference play is impressive in its own right, but the way Indiana left its neighbor’s house victorious speaks volumes about its chances of being the class of the Big Ten after Wisconsin and Maryland.

Illinois was undefeated at home, including a win over Maryland, heading into Sunday. It jumped out to a quick 11-point lead behind three early threes from Kendrick Nunn. The Hoosiers owned the middle of the half, outscoring Illinois 31-9 over a 10-minute stretch to take an 11-point lead of its own. The Illini were able to erase that deficit, but Indiana took a four-point lead into halftime.

The runs continued after the teams emerged from the locker room, as Indiana opened the gap to 10 points in the first two minutes of the second half. Illinois then seemed to take control of the game, going on a 21-2 run to grab a 61-52 lead with 10:54 left in the game. Just as it had in the first half, the State Farm Center was rocking with the Illini holding a comfortable lead.

Just as it did in the first half, Indiana answered. This time, it would not give up the high ground once they gained it.

Indiana chipped away at Illinois’ lead with a series of strikes from behind the arc. Collin Hartman, James Blackmon and Nick Zeisloft each hit big threes, and Blackmon also made all three free throws after being fouled from behind the arc. While it was the long-range shot that got the Hoosiers back into the game (they were 11-for-25 from long distance) it was three plays right at the rim that swung the game in Indiana’s favor.

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First, Nnanna Egwu picked up his fifth foul on an over-the-back call. On the Illini’s next possession, with a one-point lead, Leron Black missed a layup that Egwu likely would have taken if he hadn’t fouled out. On the ensuing possession, Yogi Ferrell missed a layup, but Troy Williams followed with an athletic putback to put the Hoosiers ahead, 73-72. Illinois turned the ball over on its next possession, leading to an easy transition layup for Blackmon and another Big Ten win for Indiana.

The Hoosiers still have a lot of work to do to establish themselves as the team to beat, after Wisconsin and Maryland. For one thing, they’ve yet to play either of the beast teams in the conference, though that will change when they welcome the Terps to Bloomington on Thursday. They also haven’t seen Iowa, the only other team in the Big Ten with just one conference loss. What Indiana has done, however, is place itself firmly in the Big Ten’s second tier, as well comfortably in the NCAA tournament picture. Conference wins over Ohio State and Illinois, as well as non-conference victories against SMU and Butler, have the Hoosiers positioned to be the biggest challengers to the established order of the Big Ten. 

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