It was, as Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star writes, Eric Gordon's toughest road game. The freshman made the visit into Illinois last night, the school he spurned for Indiana after making a verbal committment to the Illini and spawning a sea of hatred and recriminations between the border rivals.
Illinois gave Indiana everything they could handle before succumbing in double-overtime. Gordon did not play well. His 19 points led the Hoosiers, but it came on 3-of-13 shooting from the field. But he got to the stripe and was successful when he was there, hitting 10-of-12 from the line. And that was the microcosm of the game. It was a night when Gordon struggled from the field, D.J. White was held in single digits for rebounds and Illinois played Indiana evenly in every phase of the game but one. At the charity stripe, the Illini shot just 8-17, while the Hoosiers racked up 22 points from the line. Therein lay the difference between IU being tied for first and being a game out.
The Illinois season is beginning to smack of the one Notre Dame just endured on the gridiron. No one really expected the Illini to be a serious contender, everyone knew they had to do a little rebuilding, but no one could have expected them to be this inept. With only two conference wins, it's hard to believe this program is just three seasons removed from the national title game.
What has to make it even harder for Bruce Weber and the fans is that it really doesn't have to be this way. If Brian Randle and Shawn Pruitt played consistently up to their potential, the Illini would be in the mix for an NCAA bid. But last night illustrates the problem. Illinois gets 31 points from Demetri McCarney, but Randle is completely AWOL, while Pruitt has a so-so 13 points & seven rebounds. I'm not sure what the problem is, and I certainly don't mean to imply it's for lack of effort (I lack sufficient inside knowledge of the Illini program to make such a claim), but just looking at hard numbers, you have to think both players can give much more then they have.
Jay Mariotti of The Chicago Sun-Times declares that the treatment of Gordon--which included a hard chest bump by Chester Frazier in the pregame intros was "sad" and "classless." Mariotti's right, but what's even more sad and classless is that this pious lecture comes from the same guy who was snidely mocking Ron Zook after the Rose Bowl, a game which every reasonable person acknowledged Illinois had done well just to be in. If Mariotti is finally coming around to the virtues of sportsmanship and decency in competiton, Big Ten Country applauds him. But his newfound devotion would be more impressive if he applied it to himself and not just everyone else.
Even with the win, Indiana isn't playing well right now. Having struggled in losses to UConn and Wisconsin and then last night's narrow escape (with a win over Northwestern mixed in), the Hoosiers are ripe to be picked. And the next team to get a crack at them will be Ohio State (Sunday, 1EST on CBS). The Buckeyes beat Michigan behind 15 points and 12 rebounds from Othello Hunter. If Thad Matta can get Hunter and fellow giant Kosta Koufus to really click in tandem the Bucks are going to be a dangerous team down the stretch. With three league losses they're not likely to do a three-peat conference title unless they win out, but they have the ability to become that team no contender wants to play.
Minnesota blew out Northwestern 92-72 in Evanston. It was a contrast between one team that was balanced and the other that was top-heavy. The Gophers had six players hit double figures, the highest being Spencer Tollackson's 19. NU had three players produced sixty of their points, all with 19 or more. The balanced team won.
And who would have guessed that the game of the year to date would be Purdue-Wisconsin on Saturday night in Madison? Both teams won this week to set up their 9 EST showdown. The Badgers got a tough fight from Iowa, and watched as Trevon Hughes did nothing, Brian Butch got only two rebounds and their usually decisive edge at the free-throw line became neglible. But Marcus Landry bailed UW out with 16 points and they escaped with a six-point win. Mark Stewart of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Landry has elevated the team's play.
Purdue kept their end of the bargain by beating Penn State. The Boilermakers had nine steals and forced eighteen turnovers to key the win. Robbie Hummel led the way with 17 points, E'Twaun Moore chipped in 16 and Marcus Green made a big contribution off the bench with 14 points and seven rebounds. Green is that rarity--a junior contributor on a team of underclassmen. Matt Painter's team is easily the story of the year in this conference so far and is set for a major battle on Saturday night. However, freshman forward Scott Martin's status for the game is in doubt.