Stuck in a four-game losing streak, winless in the Big Ten and off to their worst league start since the late 1990s, Illinois could really use a nice, quiet Sunday at Indiana.
They won’t get it.
Instead, Bruce Weber’s Illini will get their first look Sunday at the one who got away: freshman guard Eric Gordon, the Indianapolis kid who jilted Illinois for Indiana and now leads the Big Ten in scoring.
Gordon didn’t announce his decision in 2006 to back out on his commitment to Illinois and head to Indiana. He walked onto the court at the Hoosier’s opening practice in Indiana Crimson, to the delight of the fans in the arena and the shock of Illinois.
Bad blood has been the rule between the schools since.
The Illini, in a scramble for offense, would have been a different team with Gordon on the floor this season. As it is, Illinois (9-9, 0-3) is ninth in the 12-team conference in scoring at 65.8 points game. The top scorer is center Shaun Pruitt, averaging a dozen points a game.
The Hoosiers? They’re ranked 10th in the country, 13-1 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. And they’re top of the conference, averaging 82.6 points a game - five points more than No. 2 Michigan State.
Gordon’s 23.5 points a game is the biggest reason.
“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Weber said this week. “He’s one of the best freshman I’ve ever lined up against. I think he’s as effective as a guard. He has so much ability.”
Weber deflected talk this week about the team’s first look at Gordon in Hoosier crimson, or Kelvin Sampson. The Indiana coach kept recruiting the 6-4 Gordon even after he agreed to play in Champaign-Urbana.
Sampson has said since last year that talk of tension between the teams over Gordon is overblown.
“Illinois wants to beat Indiana and Indiana wants to beat Illinois,” he said. “I don’t know that anything else needs to be said.”
Weber and the Illini can nonetheless count on a rude welcome Sunday in Bloomington from Indiana fans tired of hearing about how Gordon came to be a Hoosier.
Gordon, who insists the game is no bigger or different than any other Big Ten matchup, is counting on it.
“Hopefully, our fans make it tough for them,” he said, “and we will definitely make it tough for them.”
The game is a big deal - CBS will broadcast it nationally, something the network almost certainly wouldn’t be doing without Gordon and the rivalry.
But Illinois, looking for any kind of win to end their four-game drought - the first in Weber’s five years at the school - doesn’t need a big game.
“We’ve got some frustration. We’re down,” Weber said after Illinois’ 70-60 loss Thursday night at Wisconsin. “It doesn’t get easier going to Indiana.”
And Sunday’s game looks tailor-made for a Gordon explosion.
He’s scored 25 or more points six times in Indiana’s 14 games.
The Illini, who usually play sound, tenacious defense, have given up big nights in their last three losses - Ohio State’s Jamar Butler scored 32 in Illinois’ 74-58 loss in the Big Ten opener; Penn State’s Jamelle Cornley scored 18 and had 12 rebounds in a 68-64 upset of Illinois; and Trevon Hughes scored 22 points Thursday for Wisconsin.
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The Illini may be without the guy most likely to make life difficult on the perimeter for Gordon. Weber said he’ll decide at game time if guard Chester Frazier, who has a strained back and rib cage, can play. Frazier didn’t start at Wisconsin - his first missed start this season - but did go on to play 30 minutes.
Sampson says none of that will matter to Gordon when the game begins.
“Eric doesn’t think like you think,” Sampson told reporters this week.
“When you see him every day at practice, he’s just a real mature kid,” the coach said. “He doesn’t get caught up into anything outside of his life.”
Said Gordon: “I am always calm before each game. I know a lot of people are going to look forward to this game, but I’m just going to play the same way I have against other teams.”
Gordon lit up lesser opponents before the Big Ten schedule started, scoring 33 against Chattanooga, 30 against North Carolina-Wilmington and 31 on Illinois State. All those were home games, and all were supposed to be relatively easy wins for Indiana.
But if there was any doubt the 19-year-old would be just as cool, just as effective, once those “other teams” were from the Big Ten, he erased it in the Hoosiers’ conference opener.
At Iowa on Jan. 2, and the Hawkeyes gave the Hoosiers a tough game, tougher than anticipated.
Gordon, on the road and under pressure, scored 25, leading the Hoosiers in the 79-76 win.
“He’s terrific,” a clearly impressed Iowa coach Todd Lickliter said afterward. “What more can we say?”