Often times in sports it's said that two teams who are about to square off are heading in opposite directions. Not many times has it been more true than this one.
When Indiana and Illinois take the court tonight at 7 p.m. in Champaign -- in a game which will be televised on ESPN -- it truly will be two teams heading in opposite directions.
The top-ranked Hoosiers (20-2, 8-1) have won five in a row and are coming off their biggest victory of the season: an 81-73 triumph last Saturday over then-No. 1 Michigan.
Meanwhile, Illinois (15-8, 2-7) has lost six of its last seven contests after an unexpected red-hot start to the season.
In the non-conference slate, Illinois captured the Maui Invitational championship by beating Butler before traveling to Gonzaga and knocking off those Bulldogs, too. Those victories highlighted a 12-0 start and helped catapult the Illini into the top 10.
Big Ten play has been a vastly different story. Illinois thumped then-No. 8 Ohio State, 74-55, back on Jan. 5. Then the wheels fell off -- and the Illini haven't yet gotten back on track.
Illinois enters tonight's game badly needing a resume-building win for its NCAA tournament hopes. Teams with wins over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State -- three squads currently ranked in the 14 --- typically don't need to do much more resume building, but that's how far Illinois has fallen.
Since the aforementioned victory over Ohio State, Illinois has won just one (one!) game in the past 32 (32!) days. And that win came against Nebraska. During the free fall, the Illini have lost to Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin (twice), with four of those defeats coming at home in the other/lesser Assembly Hall.
Illinois has lived and died by the 3-pointer under first-year coach John Groce. The Illini have attempted 555 long balls, which is the eighth-most in the country and clearly (by 56) the most in the Big Ten. However, Illinois ranks just eighth in the league in 3-point percentage (.328).
Senior guard Brandon Paul is Illinois' go-to guy. Paul is third in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.4 points per game. He can fill it up in bunches and has the ability to carry the team, which he did in a 35-point effort at Gonzaga. Paul isn't afraid to shoot from anywhere at anytime, and he's fired up 6.6 3-point attempts per night.
Thursday's game at Illinois kickstarts a mini road trip for the Hoosiers, who hold a slim 84-83 lead over Illinois in the all-time series. After taking on the Illini, Indiana travels to Columbus to do battle with No. 10 Ohio State on Sunday. Indiana -- who averages 83.8 points per game, second-most in the nation -- has won five straight Big Ten road games dating back to last season, but the Hoosiers haven't prevailed in Champaign since 2008 (aka The Gordon Game).
Victor Oladipo, who figures to be harassing Paul, is in the midst of a stellar campaign for the Hoosiers. Oladipo is averaging 14.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.3 assists. He's hitting 64 percent of his shots -- including a 51-percent mark from beyond the arc -- and shooting 71 percent from the free throw line. Oladipo's field goal percentage ranks third in the country.
Cody Zeller ckecks in at 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds. Christian Watford is scoring 12.9 points and pulling down 6.7 boards. Jordan Hulls (11.1), Will Sheehey (9.9) and Kevin Ferrell (7.7) round out the Hoosiers' top scorers. Ferrell hands out 4.5 assists per game is averaging 12.7 points over his last four contests, with two of those outings coming against Michigan and Michigan State.
Indiana has the reputation of an outside shooting team, but the Hoosiers have attempted only 396 3-pointers, sixth-most in the Big Ten. The reason Indiana has that reputation is because it makes so many of its 3-point tries, 42 percent of them to be exact, which is tops in the league and third-best in the nation.
Ken Pomeroy has Indiana as the country's second-best adjusted offense while Illinois comes in at 30th. There's an even larger disparity on the defensive end, where Indiana is 14th to Illinois' ranking of 94th.
I'd look for it to be an uptempo, entertaining game, and I'm weary of an Indiana letdown. After the past three games, and with Ohio State on deck, a road trip to face a desperate Illinois team may spell trouble.