LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – From the Thanksgiving moment this Indiana University basketball team touched down in Hawaii, the Hoosiers have done things the difficult way this season.

Two losses in Maui. The 20-point stumble at Duke. The loss of James Blackmon Jr., the team’s second-leading scorer, to a season-ending knee injury before Big Ten play began. A disappearance from the national Top 25. A road loss at Penn State. A beatdown at Michigan State.

Think about this: With 10 days left in the regular season, the Hoosiers are first in the Big Ten standings, but ranked only the fourth-best team in the league in the national polls. The basketball world is convinced that Michigan State, Iowa and Maryland are better than Indiana.

Thursday night at Illinois, Tom Crean’s Indiana team had to overcome two more things – the complete absence of starting guard Robert Johnson (high ankle sprain) plus the loss of forward Troy Williams to a bruised thigh for most of the second half.

Breaking news: With two games to play, Indiana leads Iowa and Maryland by 1 ½ games in the Big Ten race. All the Hoosiers have to do is split their final two conference games to win a share of their second Big Ten title in four seasons.

Confirmation of that news came with a forceful 74-47 victory at Illinois Thursday night. The victory bumped Indiana's record to 23-6 overall and 13-3 in the league.

The Hoosiers did it with defense, three-point shooting and Yogi Ferrell. It was the fewest points Indiana allowed in a Big Ten regular-season game since Jan. 26, 2014, a streak of 45 games.

Ferrell showed that he is the best player in the Big Ten not named Denzel Valentine.

How did he do that? By scoring as many points (19) as the entire Illinois team scored in the second half as the Hoosiers rallied from a 28-27 deficit to win by 27. Over the final 20 minutes, Ferrell made seven of nine shots, including five from distance. No Blackmon. No Johnson. More Ferrell than Illinois could handle.

"That's what leadership from an upperclassmen looks like," said Illinois coach John Groce.

His final line was a winning line – 27 points, five assists, five rebounds and a steal in 36 minutes.

Ferrell was not the only guy who made himself comfortable at the three-point line. After missing 12 of 15 three-pointers in the first half, Indiana made 10 of 17 in the second half. This is not a team that doubts its ability to make jump shots.

Crean put Nick Zeisloft in Johnson’s spot – and he responded with 14 points, including three baskets from distance in the second half. Troy Williams, Thomas Bryant, Collin Hartman and Juwan Morgan also contributed three-pointers.

The biggest upgrade Indiana has made since November has been on defense. More energy. More force pushing big men off the block. More attention to crowding passing lanes. More pressure on ball-handlers. No more crazy switching from man-to-man to zone.

Consider the work Indiana did on Malcolm Hill, Illinois’ best player, a guy who entered the game averaging 18.6 points, second best in the Big Ten.

Hill scored five – all in the second half after this game was over. Indiana limited Hill to five field-goal attempts. His five points were a season low.

Hill was not the only Illinois player to struggle in the second half. Illinois made only seven of 23 shots while grabbing one offensive rebound. They finished with a miserable .770 points per possession.

"These guys brought a high-level of defensive intensity to the road, and I'm proud of them," Crean told the Big Ten Network after the game.

Crean’s team made this difficult in the first five minutes, falling behind 14-4. They recovered to move to a four-point lead later in the first half but watched Illini guard Jalen Coleman-Lands convert a three-pointer from the right wing to put Illinois ahead, 28-27, at halftime. Everything changed in the second half.

The guy in the Big Ten office who drew up the schedule deserves a bonus. Indiana finishes its season with games against its two closest pursuers -- Iowa (road, Tuesday) and Maryland (home, March 6). Both teams are 11-4 in league play.

The Hawkeyes have games at Ohio State (Sunday) and Michigan sandwiched around Indiana’s visit. Maryland travels to Purdue Saturday and then hosts Illinois before visiting Assembly Hall.

At 10-5, Michigan State and Wisconsin are also angling for a share of the title – as well as first-round byes in the Big Ten Tournament.

But if both Iowa and Maryland lose this weekend, the Hoosiers will be guaranteed at least a share of the Big Ten title.

That’s not what anybody was predicting before Big Ten play began.

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