Sunday's lone Big Ten game is a crucial matchup in Champaign between the Indiana Hoosiers and Illinois Fighting Illini. Each of these NCAA tournament "bubble" teams enter the game seeking an important conference win that could help secure a seed in March Madness. Who has what it takes to pull this one out?
Game of the Day
Indiana Hoosiers at Illinois Fighting Illini - 1 ET (BTN)
In this battle between Big Ten rivals, there is more than just bragging rights at stake. In fact, the outcome of this game might just determine who gets to make the tourney. Indiana (13-4) is off to a strong 3-1 start in conference play, partly due to solid win over ranked #22 Ohio State. Led by freshman phenom James Blackmon Jr. (16.4 PPG) and seasoned point guard Yogi Ferrell (15.4 PPG, 4.8 APG), the Hoosiers seek their first win in Champaign since 2012. In 2013, Illinois knocked off the then #1 Hoosiers 74-72 on a Tyler Griffey buzzer beater. The following season, the Illini's Rayvonte Rice posted a killer 29 point, 8 rebound, 3 steal performance to snatch an 83-80 overtime win to open Big Ten play. However, Sunday's game will be much different.
Illinois (12-6) returns only one starter from last year's game (Nnanna Egwu) after losing guards Rice and Tracy Abrams to injury and seniors Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand to graduation. Indiana too lost Noah Vonleh, a key big man, to the NBA draft. But while both teams are missing key components, they have still found ways to succeed. Sophomore scorers Malcom Hill and Kendrick Nunn will need to be the the top of their games on both sides of the floor when facing up against a very sound Indiana squad that is averaging 81.6 PPG on the year. Ferrell and Blackmon Jr. combine to form one of the most explosive backcourts in the nation, a problem for any defense. Nunn, Hill and PG Jaylon Tate will need to contain both players in order to keep it close and give their offense a chance to get going.
Even more important will be the effectiveness and veteran leadership of Nnanna Egwu, who knows what it takes to beat the Hoosiers. Indiana plays a relatively small lineup, featuring no true big man. Their tallest starter, Troy Williams, is only 6'7'' and will be a major matchup advantage for Egwu, who needs to play well in the post. If Egwu can be effective in the paint, he could pose a major threat for Tom Crean's defense. Look for John Groce to get Egwu looks early to establish an inside game.
According to ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi, Indiana is currently placed at a #9 seed in tournament bracketology. They are also one of the "Last Four In", barely making the cut. Illinois on the other hand is one of the "Last Four Out" and needs a big victory to get them into the mix. Whichever the way the dominoes fall, this is going to be a close one. And its gonna be fun to watch.