With wins in six of its past seven games, including Saturday over No. 1 Purdue, Indiana finally is looking like the team some thought in October would win the Big Ten Conference this season.
The 18th-ranked Hoosiers will try to keep their run going Tuesday night at home in Bloomington when they try to solve the sticky defense of No. 24 Rutgers in another Big Ten matchup.
Everyone knew Indiana (16-7, 7-5) had one of the best players in the nation in Trayce Jackson-Davis. He’s played at a national Player of the Year level during this surge, averaging 24.3 points, 13.4 rebounds and 3.9 blocked shots per game. In the 79-74 triumph over Purdue, Jackson-Davis had 25 points, seven rebounds and five blocks against 7-foot-4 Zach Edey.
But Jackson-Davis’ teammates are playing closer to his level lately. Freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino contributed 16 points and four assists against Purdue, while Trey Galloway netted 11 points and three steals.
Jackson-Davis said the difference in this team from others he’s played on is the physical aspect.
“I just think it’s a toughness factor,” he said. “I feel like teams in the past that I’ve been on just weren’t that tough, honestly. We’ve kind of found our niche, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Even though the Hoosiers were outrebounded 38-22 by Purdue and allowed 50.9 percent field-goal shooting, they found a way to win. They hit 52.6 percent from the field and exploited a 16-8 turnover advantage throughout, particularly in establishing a 50-35 halftime lead.
That was the type of offense Indiana couldn’t come close to unearthing when it met Rutgers on Dec. 3 in Piscataway, N.J., where the Scarlet Knights weaved their defensive web during a 63-48 victory.
Jackson-Davis managed 13 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out late. Rutgers allowed the Hoosiers to shoot just 30.4 percent from the field and forced them to turn the ball over 14 times in beating them for the sixth consecutive game.
“We’ve kind of played with a chip on our shoulder since we got punked by Rutgers,” Jackson-Davis said.
Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights (16-7, 8-4) are coming off a 61-55 win Saturday over Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. After trailing 25-19 at halftime, Rutgers rallied behind the familiar duo of Paul Mulcahy (17 points) and Clifford Omoruyi (15 points, 12 rebounds).
With the exception of Iowa, which swept the Knights and averaged 84.5 points per game, few have solved their tungsten-tough defense. Temple and Michigan State are the only other opponents to reach 70 against them.
No less an opponent than Spartans coach Tom Izzo has noticed. He compared Rutgers’ core players of Mulcahy, defensive stopper Caleb McConnell and Omoruyi to his “Flintstones” that won the 2000 national title with unbending defense and will.
“For him to say that, a Hall of Fame coach who of course has run a great program for years and years — they ran this league for years and years — it’s just awesome to hear it coming from him,” McConnell said. “That’s a proud moment for all the work we put in over the years.”