Two months ago, it would have been crazy to predict that Indiana would win the Big Ten.
But 15 games into the 18-game conference season, the Hoosiers remain on top of the league.
No. 22 Indiana defeated No. 17 Purdue 77-73 at Assembly Hall on Saturday to move to 12-3 in the league and 22-6 overall. Given that on Dec. 2 this group was 5-3 and coming off one of the worst defensive performances of the past decade against Duke, it’s a pretty stunning turnaround.
Tom Crean’s Hoosiers got terrific performances in the first half from Troy Williams and Yogi Ferrell, who combined to equal Purdue’s 28-point output in the first 20 minutes. The stars finished with 18 and 19 points, but the second half was largely decided by role players. Max Bielfeldt scored all 10 of his points in the second half, and O.G. Anunoby and Robert Johnson combined to score 15 as the Hoosiers pulled away until a late run made the score a bit closer.
That has basically been the story of the Hoosiers’ season. The stars have been there throughout, but since James Blackmon’s injury the role players have fallen into place really nicely. Not to say that Blackmon’s injury helped the team — occassionally the offense could really use the infusion of his ability to create — but without him the roles on the team seem much more defined. The ball movement has been better and the defense has been drastically better in Big Ten play. Coming into Saturday, the Hoosiers were still fourth in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency after entering league play with the 188th-ranked defense in the nation.
That improvement has led to Indiana being tied in the loss column with Iowa heading into their final three games of the season. If the Hoosiers can take care of business at Illinois this week, and the Hawkeyes win their upcoming games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, it will set up a game March 1 between the two teams to determine the regular-season champ.
With the way this season has gone, those three games are a pretty long road. But it goes to show the surprising nature of this Big Ten season. Back in mid-December, it was assumed the league would belong to Michigan State or Maryland. Now, it looks like we’re setting up for a showdown between two teams whose title hopes were left for dead after six nonconference losses.
College basketball can be a weird sport sometimes.