Dating back to Bob Knight’s opposition to the concept itself, Indiana has never found synergy with the Big Ten tournament.
The Hoosiers are 10-16 overall at the event, have never won it and have lasted to the third day only five times.
They need this single-elimination free-for-all now more than ever. It is Indiana’s last gasp at a third consecutive NCAA tourney appearance.
The team’s quest begins today when the eighth-seeded Hoosiers (17-14) open with No. 9 seed Illinois (18-13).
With each game that passes, the pressure will mount, but IU coach Tom Crean doesn’t want his team to think about the tightrope.
The most important thing is that you don’t ever look ahead, said Crean, whose teams are 2-5 in the tournament. It doesn’t really matter what team you have going in. If you look ahead to Day 2, you could be done on Day 1. You don’t want any part of that. You have to be so locked into what is in front of you.
That’s the Illini.
Later, it could be Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin, with stars Nik Stauskas, Terran Petteway and Frank Kaminsky. They would be the Hoosiers’ opponents if they advance and face the highest possible seed in each round.
The Hoosiers split the season series 1-1 with the Illini, but they committed 35 turnovers and struggled from the field, shooting 41 percent. Rayvonte Rice averaged 24.5 points and six rebounds in those games.
Illinois, which lost eight in a row from Jan. 8 to Feb. 4, is 5-3 since Feb. 9. That includes victories over Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, which all appear to be NCAA tournament teams.
One of our goals was to be playing our best basketball heading into what we call Season 3,’ Illinois coach John Groce said. We’ve seen a lot of progress. That’s what you want this time of year.
Eight games ago, Groce benched senior starters Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand in favor of freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. Illinois has been riding that smaller lineup ever since.
We and Indiana were the two youngest teams at the outset of the season by a landslide, Groce said. My entire bench was five freshmen and a sophomore. I wanted that more balanced with experience.
Today is Illinois’ revenge game in a sense. Indiana beat the Illini in the second round of this tournament last year.
Both teams feature a new core and even the style figures to be different.
Illinois’ current roster is notable for its slow-paced offense. A major factor will be whether the Hoosiers can create an up-tempo game with chaos and disorder.
The wild card is Troy Williams. The Hoosiers could use a dose of the freshman who gave them 34 points in the last two games.
He’s gaining confidence all the time, Crean said. We hope it can keep up the rest of the season.