CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Of all the iconic college basketball rivalries in the Illinois-Indiana-Kentucky tri-state area, this is arguably one of them.
It’s unclear how much animus Indiana actually feels toward Illinois, but on Thursday night the Hoosiers disposed of the Illini 80-65 with all the cold, clinical precision of a distant work acquaintance.
All too often this season, Indiana has looked completely lost on the road. The Hoosiers have suffered embarrassingly long scoring droughts, given up dominant leads and completely forgotten the mysterious tactic known as playing defense.
Against Illinois, it was all business. Indiana leapt to a demonstrative lead in the first half that never shrunk to fewer than eight points.
When the Indiana bench received a technical foul early in the first half for protesting a penalty, the Hoosiers kept their cool. When Illinois brought out a World Wrestling Entertainment performer to hype up the crowd — not a joke, I promise — Indiana stared him straight in his comically beefy biceps and didn’t blink.
It was an especially impressive outing for star senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who logged a Big Ten career-high 35 points to go along with nine rebounds and five assists.
In his first three seasons at Indiana, Jackson-Davis played against former Illinois center Kofi Cockburn five times. Across those matchups, Cockburn generally got the best of Jackson-Davis, limiting him on defense and overpowering him on offense.
Guess who doesn’t play for Illinois anymore.
No longer having to contend with a 7-foot, 293-pound All-American, Jackson-Davis routinely and successfully used his back as a battering ram in the paint — a move which looks like it could concuss an adult horse, let alone displace a defender — creating wide open shots from nothing. Of his 19 shot attempts, Jackson-Davis missed only four.
Beyond Jackson-Davis, junior forward Jordan Geronimo put forth his second-straight double-digit scoring performance with 13 points and eight rebounds. With graduate forward Race Thompson sidelined with a knee injury, Jordan’s emergence as a reliable scorer and staunch defender is invaluable for the Hoosiers.
Indiana also got strong guard play from freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino and junior Trey Galloway, who combined for 21 points and six assists. Even with graduate guard Xavier Johnson still rehabilitating his foot injury, the Hoosier frontcourt has been a bright spot lately.
Still, no star shone brighter than Jackson-Davis, who must be an absolute nightmare for fans of opposing teams. Thursday night wasn’t the first time I heard an opposing fan curse Jackson-Davis as if he were a rival mid-20th century oil tycoon with whom he shared a decades-old blood feud, and it probably won’t be the last.
But again, Jackson-Davis appeared completely immune to the vitriol. With 3:52 remaining in the game, he was fouled on a 3-point attempt. All game long, Illinois fans had patiently waited for a Hoosier to miss all their free throws, which would reward attendees with free chicken nuggets from McDonald’s.
Jackson-Davis proceeded to sink all three of his foul shots — a brutal, emotionless act of McNugget denial.
Shortly thereafter, the final buzzer sounded, and the Hoosiers exited the floor to a quiet smattering of applause from traveling fans. The Illinois Orange Krush student section, true to its name, was both very orange and looked entirely crushed. The Hoosiers had concluded a successful business trip.
Maybe Illinois fans hate Indiana. Thursday night, it didn’t seem like Jackson-Davis or the Hoosiers thought about the Illini or their fans much at all.
I generally find that it’s more fun to root for teams who look like they’re having fun on the court. For now, however, it might be in Indiana fans’ best interest if the Hoosiers play like an exhausted mid-level employee in a dead-end corporate job.
I mean, Illinois barely showed up to this meeting — the second half probably could have just been an email.