Illinois basketball prepares for Indiana, Big Ten Tournament

Illinois’ Jon Ekey rises for a layup against Iowa at State Farm Center, on Feb. 1. Ekey hit a buzzer-beater to beat the Hawkeyes on Saturday.

Jon Ekey’s last-second shot to sink Iowa on Saturday was a thrill Illinois basketball hadn’t felt in nearly a year.

Nothing quite compares to the jubilation of winning a game in the final second of play.

The win puts the Illini in a position similar to where they were a year ago. Illinois will play in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday morning, in a matchup of the eight- and ninth-place teams in the conference.

Last year, the 8-seed Illini beat 9-seed Minnesota on a Brandon Paul buzzer-beater. This time the 9-seed Illini will begin the tournament in Indianapolis against the 8-seed Indiana.

The win over the Gophers in 2013 was enough to cement Illinois’ place in the NCAA Tournament. This year, it figures to take much more than one win to get the Illini into the Big Dance.

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The NIT is a more likely scenario. But Illinois fans will point to 2008, when the 10th-seeded Illini made it all the way to the tournament’s championship game. It can be done, and a similar run would really brighten Illinois chances in 2014.

But it all starts with a win over Indiana. Luckily for the Illini, they seem to be clicking at the right time.

“For us, our goal was to be playing our best basketball heading into postseason play,” head coach John Groce said. “Other than Tuesday night, I thought we’ve done a lot of good things heading in that direction offensively and defensively.”

Last Tuesday’s loss to Michigan was the worst loss in the 51-year history of State Farm Center. Should Illinois beat Indiana, the Illini would have another matchup with the Big Ten champion Wolverines.

Illinois and Indiana have met twice, with each team winning on its home court. In Illinois’ 38 Big Ten Tournament games, it has met Indiana seven times, more than any other opponent. Last year the Hoosiers beat the Illini 80-64 in the tournament quarterfinals.

Similar to last year, the Illini have turned their season around after suffering through midseason struggles, namely an eight-game losing streak. Though it might be coming too late, that turnaround has been sparked by the play of freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill.

Indiana head coach Tom Crean has noticed.

“The game at Penn State (on Feb. 9) got them in a good spot,” Crean said during Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “They changed the lineup and Nunn and Hill did some good things.”

Crean went on to praise Nunn further, saying Nunn’s offensive game is “ahead of where Victor Oladipo’s was at this stage in his career.”

Any comparison to an NBA talent is a good sign — Oladipo now plays for the Orlando Magic.

Groce agreed that mixing up his lineups changed the season. Not just because of Nunn and Hill’s development into starters, but because it gave the Illini some experience on the bench in Ekey and Joseph Bertrand.

“Us and Indiana were the two youngest teams (in the Big Ten) at the outset of the season by a landslide,” Groce said. “My entire bench was five freshmen and a sophomore. I wanted to get that a little more balanced with experience.

“A prime example of that was at Iowa over the weekend, Joe and Jon, we don’t win that game if they’re not ready.”

Bertrand scored six points in 20 minutes of play. Ekey added another 12 points, but none was bigger than the three he scored just before the buzzer.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.