Illinois men’s basketball hoping to break conference tie with Hoosiers

The Indiana and Illinois men’s basketball teams aren’t all that different. Both have young, emerging big men, impressive wins and at least one bad loss.

On Thursday, the two teams face off at No. 23 Indiana’s Assembly Hall, where the Hoosiers play host to the Illini at 7 p.m. in a rivalry game between two of the Big Ten’s middle-of-the-pack teams.

“Obviously they don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Illinois junior guard Brandon Paul said. “But at the same time, there’s a respect for both teams. I definitely respect them, and I’m looking forward to coming out and playing.”

Indiana (18-6, 6-6 Big Ten), led by freshman phenom Cody Zeller, started the season 12-0, including a win over then-No.1 Kentucky before eventually losing to Michigan State. The Hoosiers rebounded quickly, however, by picking up another big win over then-No. 2 Ohio State.

Since then, things haven’t gone quite as smoothly for the Hoosiers, who have gone 4-5 in their last nine games, including a loss to Nebraska.

Illinois (16-7, 5-5) got off to an eerily similar start with a 15-3 record, with its biggest win coming against then-No. 5 Ohio State. A 1-4 record — featuring a win over then-No. 9 Michigan State and a loss to Penn State — over its last five games has quickly turned the momentum away from the Illini.

“I told the guys (Tuesday) that you’ve got to win some games, plain and simple,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “I think we have to play with the intensity and will to win that we did at Minnesota and Michigan State.”

Despite the rough stretch, Illini sophomore center Meyers Leonard said he felt like the team’s morale was doing “OK.”

“A couple of us sat down (Tuesday) and just talked and realized, yet again, it’s kind of another breaking point,” Leonard said. “We gotta try and steal a couple here on the road.”

Both Zeller and Leonard will likely be counted on to reverse each team’s respective struggles. Zeller leads the Hoosiers with 15.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while Leonard averages 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds.

“(Zeller) has good mobility, Weber said. “He can run the court, he has pretty good skills and can score around the basket. This is a big challenge. … For him to go against Zeller will be a good matchup.”

The Hoosiers have three other players who average double-digit point totals in Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo, while the Illini have two more in Paul and D.J. Richardson.

Indiana checks in tied for fifth with Illinois in the conference standings, just three and a half games behind conference-leading Ohio State. A win by either team would allow them to open the gap between Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota, which trail by just a half game.