IOWA CITY — Before the season began, this isn’t the game anyone would have pointed to as a major showdown in the Big Ten basketball race.
All of the preseason title talk surrounded Maryland and Michigan State and Purdue.
Indiana and Iowa? They might be OK. Might have a shot at being in the first division and making the NCAA Tournament.
But both the Hawkeyes and Hoosiers have exceeded all preseason expectations and they will meet Thursday night at the Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., in a game that should go a long way toward deciding the league championship.
Iowa is 10-1 in Big Ten play, 19-4 overall, and ranked fourth in this week’s Associated Press poll. Indiana is unranked but is 19-5 overall and just a game behind the Hawkeyes in the standings at 9-2.
Consider that just six years ago both programs went 10-21. And for the once-proud Hoosiers, that was an upgrade from 6-25 the previous season in their first year under coach Tom Crean.
While Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is being mentioned as a national coach of the year candidate, he’s aware that what Crean has done in reviving Indiana is equally remarkable.
“And I've told him that,’’ McCaffery said Tuesday. “It's hard when you have a rabid fan base like they do, and it's wonderful … They know basketball, and they've seen great basketball, and they appreciate it. But he had a steep road, and he really has done a phenomenal job.’’
Thursday’s 8 p.m. matchup, which will be televised nationally by ESPN, figures to also be one of the more entertaining games of the Big Ten season. The two clubs rank 1-2 in the league in scoring and Indiana is second in the country in field goal percentage.
“It’s definitely going to be a track meet,’’ Iowa guard Mike Gesell said. “Both teams love to get out and run and that’s going to be fun. That’s the way we like to play, that’s the way they like to play.’’
The Hoosiers not only have one of the nation’s top point guards in senior Yogi Ferrell but they also have an explosive forward in Troy Williams and a developing freshman center in Thomas Bryant, whose 72.4 field goal percentage would lead the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify.
Iowa guard Peter Jok played against the 6-foot-7 Williams in the AAU ranks and called him “one of the more athletic dudes in the Big Ten.’’
“He's got one of the best motors I've ever seen,’’ McCaffery said of Williams. “It never seems to stop, and he's constantly in attack mode. That's one of the things I like about him. He just keeps coming.’’
The Hoosiers didn’t seem to skip a beat when sharp-shooting sophomore James Blackmon was sidelined by an injury. Transfers Dave Zeisloft and Max Bielfeldt and a strong freshman class have helped fortify the bench.
“They move the ball. They run. They attack. They get lay-ups,’’ McCaffery said. “If you're shooting those kinds of numbers, you're getting lay-ups. But they're also a good 3-point shooting team for the most part.’’
McCaffery figures a big part of his team’s emergence this season has been because of improved defense and he said the same is true of Indiana. The Hoosiers aren't just about offense.
“They're playing good defense,’’ McCaffery said. “They're sharing the ball. They're rebounding the ball. They're getting really good play from a lot of different people. Their young guys are really stepping up. When Blackmon got hurt, I think everybody wondered what would happen then, but the young guys … are playing really well, giving them another lift.’’