(AP) -- Indiana is standing tall again as the top seed in the Big Ten tournament after winning its first outright conference title in two decades.
In order to continue their quest of winning the conference tournament for the first time since the Big Ten started holding the event in 1998, the third-ranked Hoosiers must get past a team that handed them one of their four league losses this season.Indiana begins play in the tourney Friday with a quarterfinal matchup against eighth-seeded Illinois, which advanced Thursday on a jumper at the buzzer and beat the Hoosiers last month on a wide-open layup as time expired.Indiana (26-5) entered that Feb. 7 matchup in Illinois as the No. 1 team in the country and led by 12 at halftime before the Fighting Illini (22-11) began their comeback.They scored 45 points in the second half, the last two coming when senior forward Tyler Griffey took an inbounds pass from Brandon Paul with 0.9 seconds to play and converted a layup at the buzzer.Paul was at it again in the first round against Minnesota on Thursday, hitting a buzzer-beating fadeaway and finishing with 25 points to lead Illinois to a 51-49 victory."I didn't want to lose. We worked too hard to get to this point," Paul said. "This team has so much character. My mindset was just to be aggressive. Coach (John Groce) told me to stay aggressive. I basically wanted to attack on offense and do other things."Paul had 21 points last month against the Hoosiers, who wrapped up their first outright Big Ten title since 1993 on Sunday by handing Michigan its only home loss of the season, 72-71.Sophomore forward Cody Zeller had a season-high 25 points -- one short of his career high -- and 10 rebounds, and national player of the year candidate Victor Oladipo chipped in with 14 points and a career-best 13 boards.The title capped a return to prominence for a program knocked to the ground not too long ago. Coach Tom Crean reflected on how far Indiana has come since he took over in 2008.The Hoosiers endured crippling NCAA sanctions in the wake of the phone call scandal involving his predecessor Kelvin Sampson and struggled to get back to the top. The Hoosiers won six games his first season but made a big jump in 2011-12, orchestrating a turnaround that matched the biggest in Big Ten history on their way to a 27-9 record and a trip to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.They were ranked No. 1 in the 2012-13 preseason poll and spent a good chunk of the season there.Crean mentioned the "players that helped get this back" and the support for the team."We had hundreds of people waiting at the gym (Sunday) night when we got in," he said. "We had probably 100 to 150 people waiting at the airport when we got there on a Sunday night in the rain. That's what it's about. It really is."The thing to me is we've always said there's no way this program could have endured what it did without the support -- not just the support but the passion, the legitimate passion that our fans have had."The winner of this game will meet No. 6 Michigan or No. 22 Wisconsin in the semifinals Saturday.
Illinois faces No. 3 Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament today. If the Illini win, they will have defeated two top-5 teams in the same season for the first time since 2004-05, when they lost in the National Championship game.
Illinois has only defeated two top-5 teams in the same season 3 times in its history: 2004-05, 1964-65 and 1951-52. In 2 of the previous 3 seasons (2004-05, 1951-52), it went on to reach the Final Four.