Life changed for Indiana senior guard Matt Roth and his Hoosiers basketball teammates on Dec. 10, when Christian Watford's 3-pointer at the buzzer beat Kentucky, the nation's top-ranked team.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Life changed for Indiana senior guard Matt Roth and his Hoosiers basketball teammates on Dec. 10, when Christian Watford's 3-pointer at the buzzer beat Kentucky, the nation's top-ranked team.
The shot sent the state of Indiana into Hoosier Hysteria and marked a milestone. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp said the same thing everyone else was thinking that night.
"We're back, baby.''
Before No. 23 Indiana hosts Illinois on Thursday, the Hoosiers ended from a four-game road losing streak with a win against rival Purdue on Saturday and likely made it louder at tipoff, but Indiana's season was already marked by two wins -- including a 74-70 decision over then-No. 2 Ohio State -- that reminded everyone Indiana basketball is more than the five national championship banners swaying at one of the court, a catchy fight song and those candy-striped warmup pants.
"In that moment, it was almost like a payoff for all of us guys and what we've been through for the last couple years,’’ said Roth, the former Peoria Journal Star big school player of the year, about Watford’s game-changer. “It was one of the things our fans needed and we needed.''
In Roth's first two seasons combined, Indiana won 16 games. Roth missed all but two games with a foot injury as a sophomore. The Hoosiers were 12-20 last season and haven't played in the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Yet when Indiana knocked off No. 20 Illinois last January, the Hoosiers ended a 19-game losing streak to top 25 teams.
It might have been the start of something bigger.
"We were confident in what we expected,'' Roth said. "We knew it was a matter of time until we turned the corner.''
While youngsters such as freshman center Cody Zeller are the building blocks, Roth has a special talent. He leads the Big Ten with 55.1-percent shooting from the 3-point line. His minutes are up (11.2 per game) because he's playing better on the other end of the court.
"This is the most confident he's been,'' Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "He's grown as a defender. That's what kept him on the floor. Teams like to game-plan. He's taken that personally. He really responded this year in a big way.''
Roth is already a graduate student after graduating last May but has one more year of eligibility remaining if he applies for a medical redshirt, because of the injury two years ago. He may stick with the Hoosiers on an academic scholarship or transfer for a fifth year elsewhere. Indiana is already over-signed for next season, but Roth and Crean won't offer any hints.
"I've never been one to think too far ahead,'' Roth said. "We've got a great stretch run here to finish the season. I'm in a good place with good people around me.''
With a special recruiting class signed for next season, Indiana may have already climbed past the Illini in the Big Ten pecking order. In the short term, Illinois staggered into Indiana following a depressing 74-70 loss to Northwestern at home Sunday that sent the folks in orange to the ledge.
At this point, the mathematics put the Illini into the NCAA bracketology. But with such inconsistent play and four of the the next five games on the road, Illinois could find itself off the board within a few weeks. That wouldn't help team morale, an edgy fan base or coach Bruce Weber.
"We really have to step up and make improvement and find a way to get some wins,'' Weber said. "That's all there is to it. I told them (Tuesday), You have to win some games. Plain and simple.''
There's a matchup between Illini center Meyers Leonard and Zeller, the perimeter battle and the drama that unfolds when a rival shows up at Indiana, but Weber still searches for the extra fight that was missing against Northwestern.
"We've got to win the fight, to come with intensity and have that special will to win,'' Weber said.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.
Illinois (16-7, 5-5) vs. No. 23 Indiana (18-6, 6-6)
7 p.m., Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind. (BTN, Illini Sports Network)
ILLINOIS (16-7, 5-5) ppg rpg
F Joe Bertrand 6-5 So. 7.0 2.7
C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.3 8.0
G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 15.1 5.0
G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 12.2 2.9
G Tracy Abrams 6-1 Fr. 3.0 2.4
INDIANA (18-6, 6-6) ppg rpg
F Christian Watford 6-9 Jr. 12.1 5.6
F Derek Elston 6-9 Jr. 4.9 2.6
C Cody Zeller 6-11 Fr. 15.1 6.4
G Jordan Hulls 6-0 Jr. 12.1 2.7
G Victor Oladipo 6-5 So. 10.5 5.3
Noteworthy: The all-time series is tied at 83-83. ... Four of Illinois' five remaining road games are against opponents in this week's top 25. Illinois is 3-1 against ranked teams this season with home victories over No. 19 Gonzaga, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 9 Michigan State. The Illini’s lone loss to a ranked team was a four-point setback against No. 4 Missouri. ... Illinois lost its last five road games against ranked teams. The Illini haven't beaten a ranked team on the road since beating No. 11 Wisconsin 63-56 on Feb. 9, 2010. ... Indiana guard Verdell Jones III, a former Champaign Central star, didn't play against Purdue because of a sprained shoulder. His status was unknown.
Key for Illini: Play with the same intensity as games against Michigan State and Ohio State.
Key for Hoosiers: Get the crowd riled up and see if the Illini can handle it.
Key quote: "Who can fight it out and find a way to win enough games, maybe get hot at the right time and get a run into the (NCAA) tournament?'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
Prediction: Indiana 68, Illinois 63