You might be able to count on one hand the people at the beginning of the year who thought there would be a late-season contest for second place in the Big Ten between Indiana and Northwestern.
But here we are in mid-February, with No. 14 Indiana and Northwestern tied for second place in the conference standings going into Wednesday’s game at Evanston, Ill.
Both the Hoosiers and the Wildcats enter the game two games behind league-leading Purdue.
It’s not all that surprising to see Indiana in second place, given the Hoosiers were picked to win the league in a preseason writers’ poll.
After a slow start in league play, Indiana (18-7, 9-5) has put it together over the last month.
Indiana has followed a 1-4 start in Big Ten play by winning eight of its last nine games, the latest being a 62-61 win at Michigan on Saturday.
The biggest reason for Indiana’s success is Trayce Jackson-Davis, the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year. He has been carrying the team on his shoulders.
In his last 12 games, Jackson-Davis is averaging 23.3 points and 13.9 rebounds a game. He is also logging heavy minutes.
Jackson-Davis is averaging more than 37 minutes a game in that stretch and has only missed three minutes of game action total in Indiana’s last four contests, leaving some concerns that he will wear down.
“Just going out there and trying to perform,” Jackson-Davis said. “It’s the end of the season now. Ain’t no time to be tired. We just have to keep pushing, keep carrying through and get our rest at the end of the season.”
Indiana will hope to keep it going against a Northwestern team that not only recorded an 84-83 at Indiana in the first meeting of the season between the teams on Jan. 8, but also is coming off its biggest win in school history.
The Wildcats (18-7, 9-5) knocked off then-No. 1 Purdue at home on Sunday 64-58. Not only was the victory the school’s first over a top-ranked team, but it might have sealed Northwestern’s second NCAA Tournament berth in school history.
Northwestern has won three straight games and entered Monday with six Quad 1 wins and a NET ranking of 44.
Outside of reaching NCAA tourney, the other goal is to stay in the race for a Big Ten title after being picked to finish 13th in the league at the beginning of the year.
The keys to Northwestern’s success this year have been a productive, veteran backcourt, a stifling defense and taking care of the basketball.
Seniors Boo Buie (16.6 points per game) and Chase Audige (15.1) comprise arguably the best backcourt in the conference, while the Wildcats are limiting opponents to 61.9 points per game and averaging just 10.2 turnovers per contest.
“I know there has been a lot of talk about how we can’t close,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “This is a different year. This is a different team and a great testament to our guys.”
–Field Level Media