Everyone is looking up at Indiana in the Big Ten standings. - USA TODAY Sports
No. 1 Hoosiers can take stranglehold on Big Ten
Tonight, Indiana, fresh off a big win, goes on the road to take on a team that's skidding and could desperately use a marquee victory.
Sounds a lot like the Illinois game, doesn't it?
The top-ranked Hoosiers hit the road this evening to do battle with Minnesota -- a team that's lost four of its last five and eight of its previous 11 -- inside The Barn in a 7 p.m. contest that will be shown on ESPN.
It's a big game for both teams.
Indiana (24-3, 12-2) holds a two-game lead in the Big Ten standings, and a win tonight means that Indiana would have to slip up at home against either Iowa or Ohio State -- in addition to losing at Michigan in the regular-season finale -- to miss out on an outright Big Ten regular season title. Basically, barring disaster, the Hoosiers can clinch the Big Ten title, and a likely No. 1 seed, by beating the Gophers.
For Minnesota (18-9, 6-8), things have completely fallen apart in Big Ten play. The Gophers probably aren't on the bubble, but a win over a No. 1 team would surely remove any doubt.
When Minnesota came to Assembly Hall back on Jan. 12, it was ranked eighth in the nation. If the Gophers lose tonight, they'll be 6-9 in league play. Minnesota has recently hit rock bottom in a pair of recent non-competitive losses, falling by 21 at Iowa and 26 at Ohio State.
Despite the slide, the Golden Gophers still feature four quality players in Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are the team's leading scorers at 13.6 and 11.1 points per game, respectively. Mbakwe averages 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. Williams, a freakish athlete, scores 10.9 points and snags 5.2 boards.
The Gophers' strength is the inside play of Williams and Mbakwe, which help Minnesota to 38.9 rebounds per night. Their weakness is perimeter scoring, a big reason Minnesota only averages 69.1 points per game.
In the earlier matchup, Indiana ran roughshod over Minnesota in the opening half before the Gophers made a game of it late. The first 20 minutes were a clinic for the Hoosiers as Indiana opened up a commanding 52-29 lead at the break. Andre Hollins nailed five 3-pointers and finished with 25 points to pace Minnesota while all five Indiana starters reached double figures, led by Victor Oladipo's 20 points (on 8-for-10 shooting).
While Minnesota is spiraling downwards, Indiana is shooting straight up. The Hoosiers are coming off a hard-earned 72-68 win at Michigan State, which was the program's most significant road victory in a long, long (LONG) time. Indiana has won four in a row since the slip up at Illinois, including another nice road win (at Ohio State).
The Hoosiers -- who havent captured an outright Big Ten championship since 1993 -- have had a week off since the win in East Lansing. Getting another road win, which would be their seventh in league play, would go a long way towards securing the Big Ten title.
A year ago, Indiana got its best road triumph of the season at The Barn, throttling the Gophers, 69-50.
To me, rebounding is the key in this one. Indiana must continue to play stout defense, force Minnesota to hit jumpers and then rebound the basketball. Offensively, the Hoosiers must simply be themselves -- move the ball, find the open man, knock down shots and get to the foul line.
We learned a lot about this team's toughness after the Illinois game. Now, we get to see what kind of killer instinct this group possesses. With Ohio State's win over Michigan State on Sunday, the Big Ten is Indiana's to lose. A win tonight all but clinches it and gives Indiana a real good shot at the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.