Early in the game, it looked at if Illinois big man Meyers Leonard would have the better of IU freshman Cody Zeller. But Zeller fought back, Leonard spent much of the second half in foul trouble and ultimately fouled out, and a potent Hoosier offense overwhelmed the Illini's usually strong defense. IU took the ball inside, both to Zeller and on the drive, and the result was 35-42 free throw shooting, compared to 12-15 for Illinois. The Illini, other than Leonard, were pretty content to take three pointers, taking 21 of their 51 field goal attempts from outside the arc and making 7. Certainly, those threes ended IU runs at various time, and DJ Richardson shot 5-12 from deep. Ultimately, however, much like in the Purdue game, the free throw shooting of Zeller and Victor Oladipo carried the day.
IU's 1.26 points per possession was the Hoosiers' third best total of the season, behind only the games against Iowa and at Penn State. Against one of the Big Ten's best defenses, that's no small accomplishment. Also, the Hoosiers' turnover numbers (a 15-10 advantage) were very good. IU 's 15.5 turnover percentage was the best of the Big Ten season so far and better than in any non-conference game against a major opponent. IU's defensive turnover percentage of 22.5 was the second best of the Big Ten season. Neither team was particularly strong on the offensive boards: IU had a slight advantage, 25 percent to 22 percent. In other words, IU shot 50 percent from the field, was comfortably in the black on turnovers, took three times as many free throws as Illinois, and held its own in every statistical category. That computes to a comfortable win, although as we discussed in the game thread, a comfortable win that felt uncomfortable longer than it should have. That has nothing to do with this team and everything to do with the demeanor of fans after suffering through the previous three seasons and a midseason slump.
- Cody Zeller was very good after a tentative start. He finished with a game-high 22 points on 5-8 from the field and 10-12 from the line.
- Christian Watford rediscovered his offense. He scored 18 on 6-11 from the field, 2-4 from 3, and 4-4 from the line.
- Victor Oladipo followed up on his career game against Purdue with another very good one: 18 points, 4-8 from the field, and 10-12 from the line, although he did have 5 of IU's ten turnovers.
- Jordan Hulls shot very well from the three (3-4) and finished with 15 points. Surprisingly, he missed two free throws.
- Those four starters accounted for 73 of IU's 84 points.
- Verdell Jones III missed another game with a shoulder injury. I'm sure it was disappointing that he didn't get to play in what might be his final opportunity against his hometown team.
Well, things are starting to come together, aren't they? A week ago, in the wake of the Michigan loss and with the trip to Purdue and this game upcoming, it was easy to construct a scenario in which the season fell apart. That is tougher to do now. IU has now won 4 of 6 since the three game losing streak against Minnesota, OSU, and Nebraska, and has played very well in two heated games over the last week. IU is 19-6, 7-6 in the Big Ten, and with the NC Central game upcoming a 20 win season is virtually guaranteed. According to Pomeroy, IU is favored in all of its remaining games, although the road trip to Minnesota and the home game against MSU strike me as the most dangerous. Most importantly, IU finally seems to have rediscovered the interior, both through Zeller and through penetration by Oladipo. Now, the Hoosiers have only two Big Ten games in the next 14 days. The Hoosiers have the weekend off before playing Northwestern on Wednesday and at Iowa a week from Sunday. In all likelihood, IU can clinch an NCAA Tournament bid by winning their next three games, no matter what happens in Gopherland or in the home games against MSU and Purdue. Over at Peegs.com, before the season, thousands of readers participated in a poll to predict IU's win total, and 18 was the overwhelming favorite. Now, 18 is in the rear view mirror, with hopefully more good things to come.
Oh, and while it was IU 84, Illinois 71 on the scoreboard, it's now IU 84, Illinois 83 in the all-time series. Whew.