BLOOMINGTON — Indiana’s on-again, off-again NCAA Tournament aspirations appear to be back on again after consecutive wins over ranked teams.
However, if the Hoosiers are going to keep their Big Dance hopes alive they likely have to win their final two regular-season games, and at least one in the Big Ten Tournament.
That task starts tonight when Indiana (15-14, 6-12) plays at Illinois (11-18, 7-11) at 8 p.m. (FS1), and it continues at noon Sunday, when the Hoosiers host Rutgers.
"It will be two very challenging games," IU coach Archie Miller said Wednesday. "Going to Champaign, Illinois is up first and that's pretty much what we've concerned ourselves with right now. They are playing extremely well. They're much improved. At home they've been very, very difficult to deal with regardless of who's went in there and played them. Their style is so unique, it's hard to prepare for, and us playing them so far long ago (Jan. 3), it's almost like a totally different team and totally different game. But it's going to be very hard fought.
"Then we have a quick turnaround to get ready for Rutgers, and Rutgers is also competing and playing very, very well, regardless of who they play. ... These two games this week will be just the same as every other one we've played; they'll be very hard fought."
In Joe Lunardi's Bracketology released Wednesday on espn.com, Indiana was listed as the first team among the "next four out," so the Hoosiers have some work to do to get into the field of 68. Despite the fact that his team's chances likely hinge on winning these final two games, Miller said he's not changed the way the Hoosiers have, and will, prepare for them.
"We've got to approach things the same way we've been approaching things," he said. "I think everyone understands that there's a lot to play for for a lot of teams. But we've had a lot to play for for a long time now — and being able to get up off the mat last week and get two big wins was great to see. We're still right there in terms of our disposition and what we're playing for and the focus of our group, and it won't be any different this week."
IU is coming off a potential season-saving week. The Hoosiers, who fell below .500 with their overtime loss at Iowa on Feb. 22, outlasted No. 19 Wisconsin in double overtime last Tuesday before edging sixth-ranked Michigan State 63-62 last Saturday to complete a season sweep of the Spartans.
"You can't make it any bigger than it was last week," Miller said. "Each game feels bigger because the season continues to get longer, and everyone is striving for something right now at this time of year, and in the case of our league, it doesn't matter if it's team 1 or team 14. Everyone is good."
The Fighting Illini, who ended a three-game losing streak with an 81-76 win over Northwestern on Sunday, rank fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (73.2 points per game) and lead the league in steals (7.7 per game).
"The big thing is you just have to try to be organized [against them]," Miller said. "I think when you go down there, it's a different feeling than when you play them at home. Their man-to-man pressure is one thing ... they're willing to give up some offensive rebounds and some baskets and commit some fouls for the turnover margin. They want to turn you over. They want you to not be able to do anything that you practice. They don't want you to have any semblance of organization. So you have to be organized and keep things very simple for your guys and understand that it's going to be a hard game.
"When they mix in their zone presses and they go to their zone, they can also really try to turn you over. Against Northwestern they were really aggressive in that 1-2-2. ... It's just a difficult game in general for your players. It's a physical game. You play through a lot of contact, and I think the biggest thing for our guys is you can't panic. You have to be organized. You have to understand that it's going to be a little bit difficult. When you deal with all that pressure, you can get consumed with it."
Illinois is led by freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore guard Trent Frazier, who average 14 points apiece, while freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili averages 11.9 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. Junior guard Andres Feliz, who averages 8.3 points, tallied 26 in the win over the Wildcats.
"They're playing extremely fast. Their three perimeter guys, in Frazier, Feliz and Ayo, those guys are really hard attacking, pushing," Miller said. "Inside, big Giorgi is terrific for a young freshman. He's a physical guy that they've been able to establish. So they're much better on offense. They're rapidly really improved offensively."
The Hoosiers beat Illinois 73-65 Jan. 3 in Bloomington behind Romeo Langford’s 28 points.
"They're a much different team than we played in January," Miller said. "They were a lot younger then at times. They're more experienced with their group now. It's definitely a hard game."
And it's one the Hoosiers have to win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.