CHICAGO – No matter what happens the rest of the way, Indiana coach Tom Crean believes his team deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
He probably won’t have to lobby hard if the Hoosiers keep this up.
Cody Zeller scored 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead No. 3 Indiana past Illinois, 80-64, on Friday in the Big Ten quarterfinals.
The top-seeded Hoosiers (27-5) are off to a good start after claiming their first outright conference title in two decades and earning a first-round bye.
They took control midway through the first half and withstood a mild push in the second, avenging a two-point loss at Illinois (22-12) last month. That set up a matchup with Wisconsin in today’s semifinals.
Win or lose, though, Crean said his team should get a No. 1 seed come Sunday.
“I would think – I would hope – we’ve done enough,” he said. “I think when you have the league the way that it is and you win it outright the way that we did ... I think one of the bigger things is the way that we played on the road, and the only home losses that Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State have are to us. I think that says a lot because those are also three teams that can win a national championship and have been considered that way most of the year.”
Ohio State actually lost at home to Kansas in December. Even so, Crean’s bigger point holds.
The one-point win at Michigan on Sunday gave the Hoosiers the conference championship, and just as he did in that one, Zeller came up big in this game. He was 9 of 11 from the field and hit all six free throws after scoring a season-high 25 against the Wolverines.
“They were double teaming so I was trying to find the open man,” he said. “But even if I don’t score it, it opens up a lot of things for our shooters on the outside. I thought we did a nice job of that and it opened up a lot.”
Victor Oladipo added 12 points and 11 rebounds and drew the loudest cheers with a 360-degree fastbreak dunk with 90 seconds left. The Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, he also helped contain Brandon Paul.
Christian Watford scored 15, and the Hoosiers shot 54 percent overall even though they were just 5 of 17 on 3-pointers.
They were able to get good shots, though, because they locked up the Illini on defense and dominated them on the glass 38-26.
Paul finished with 16 points, but most of them came from the free throw line, where he was 11 of 12. Otherwise, it was a rough afternoon. He shot just 2 of 13 after scoring 25 and hitting the winning jumper at the buzzer in the first round against Minnesota.
Tracy Abrams scored 16, but Illinois was out of sync at the start and couldn’t make up for it down the stretch.
“They get into you,” Paul said. “Obviously, Oladipo’s a great defender. They play hard. They’re scrappy. We missed some shots. I was trying to get to the free throw line. I think I did that well, but some shots just have to fall. They fell (Thursday). They didn’t fall today. That’s just something that happens.”
The Illini got within single digits for the first time since the early going when D.J. Richardson hit two free throws with 8:17 left to make it 60-52, but Indiana held its ground.
Jordan Hulls whipped a pass to Oladipo underneath for a layup after Abrams missed a 3, and the Hoosiers struck again after Richardson missed from long range. This time, Watford hit from beyond the arc to make it 65-52 with 5:31 remaining, and the Hoosiers fans let out a loud roar and maybe a sigh of relief.
They were really rocking, though, when Oladipo threw down that dunk near the end. On an instinct, he decided to add some spice to it.
“It was just a last-second thought,” he said. “I thought about it while I was in the air. I just kind of turned around while I was in the air.”
Is that the best he has?
“No, that’s not my best one,” he said.
Then there was Zeller, dominating with 14 points as the Hoosiers built a 35-21 halftime lead.
He keyed a 12-2 run that bumped their lead from five to 22-7, scoring eight during that stretch, and he finished the half with a neat basket. He grabbed the ball in midair and redirected it into the net after Jeremy Hollowell had his shot blocked by the Illini’s Nnanna Egwu.
“There’s a reason he was on all those magazines to start the season,” Illinois coach John Groce said.