BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – There's a lot of reasons why Indiana's 62-60 win over Illinois Tuesday night at Assembly Hall was so significant.
Illinois is ranked No. 7 or No. 5 in the country, depending on who you ask.
The Hoosiers hadn't beaten the Illini in the last five meetings. In fact the last time the Hoosiers had beaten Illinois before eeking out a victory this time around was three years and one day ago, in Bloomington.
In IU's last game out, six days ago in East Lansing, the Hoosiers reacted to the news that D.J. White, last year's Big Ten freshman of the year and one of this seasons' pre-season all-conference selections, may be out for the rest of the season by laying an egg and losing to MSU by 14 points.
All of these actualities would be reason enough for the Hoosier Nation to celebrate IU's victory Assembly in the very fashion it did, by storming Coach Branch McCracken's court after Richard McBride's half-cout heave missed its mark.
But if you ask Robert Vaden what made the victory over Illinois such a big win, he'd interrupt you mid question and set you straight.
"It's a big win just because we're 3-1 in the BigTen and at the top," he would say. "And that's what we're trying to do, win a Big Ten championship."
Bing, bang, boom. End of quote.
And suddenly, with the Indiana Hoosiers trying to shake off the two-year hangover of not making it to the NCAA tournament, two seasons of struggling to win close games only to lose them (last year the Hoosiers lost five games by five points or less), the reason why winning a basketball game in the Midwest on a snowy night in January hits you upside the head like a Marco Killingsworth elbow.
Or like a Robert Vaden proclamation.
And it comes down to the fact that this is Big Ten basketball and any team worth the numbers on its backs, or more importantly the name on the front of its jersey, better want to win the league title.
Just like these Hoosiers.
Of course the reason it takes Vaden to remind one of that, is because it's been a while since Indiana basketball has been about trying to win the Big Ten.
It's not that IU has been on a hiatus from the league the last three years, nor is it that in the eyes of the Hoosiers the last three years, the Big Ten hasn't been a coveted prize.
No. It's just that for a while now in Bloomington it's been about surviving. Surviving games, surviving the season, surviving the skeptics and, for some, surviving the chopping block.
But today, at the end of a three-game stretch in which Indiana has played three ranked teams in as many games, winning two of them, just like Vaden said, the Hoosiers are 3-1 and well armed for the Big Ten hunt.
It's a title chase that will include a few more games like the one Indiana and Illini put on in a sold out Assembly Hall. White knucklin' affairs that will have the fans in the stands elbowing their buddies in the gut all night long, the guys on press row looking at their watches and the guy in charge on the Indiana bench turning his head when Killingsworth and his 57.5 free throw percentage take to the charity stripe late in the game and the outcome on the line.
"I think it's gut check games," Illinois coach Bruce Weber says, talking about this year's conference tilt. "You have to win the close games."
Weber says this because there are six teams from the Big Ten in the top 25 this week.
"And probably Michigan belongs there," he adds.
"Nothing is going to be easy. I've said since
the beginning, this is as well balanced a league as it's been in a long time. If we want to be in that race at the end, we're going to have to find a way to win a road game or two."
That goes for whichever team ultimately ends up at the top of the conference standings at the end of the day on that March Sunday that will signal the end of the conference regular season. That will be the team that will finally be crowned the Big Ten champ.
And Indiana coach Mike Davis knows it.
Of course he's known it for a while, regardless
if he's been able to practice his preaching, for
Davis has always been steadfast in his belief that to win the Big Ten you protect your home turf and try to steal a couple on the road.
"All we did was win a home game," he says after surviving the Illini. "I'm not sure where we are as a basketball team. All I know is we won a home game."
It's a message that's obviously trickled down to
It's why Rod Wilmont's response to his 17-point, 9-rebound, off-the-bench performance was to remain humble when asked about his own performance, and keep his team's lot in proper perspective.
"It was a good win for us and we've got to keep on playing like we've been playing," he says.
It's why Vaden was so resolute in his understating the significance of the Hoosiers' victory over the Illini.
And it's why Davis, fresh off his biggest win of the year and his first victory over a top 10 team since beating Michigan State last year, knew exactly how he wanted his team to end its eventful day, with the Illini handled on the Boilermakers up next.
"Hopefully our guys celebrate this tonight, come in tomorrow and put this behind us," Davis says. "Because Purdue is coming to win the basketball game and what we have to do is take care of home."
And nothing in this Big Ten season, even winning at home, is going to be easy.
Nothing's Coming Easy
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