With the walls closing in on their seasons, the Big Ten’s preseason basketball favorites pushed back last week. And with each other looming on the schedule this week, either Illinois or Indiana is guaranteed to keep that momentum moving forward as it tries to climb back into contention.

Both the Illini and the Hoosiers share a common foil for their pivot point — Wisconsin.

Inside the Illinois rebound

Illinois, which started 0-3 in conference play, hosted the Badgers in an absolute must-win on Jan. 7.

That Wisconsin was playing its first game without the injured Tyler Wahl was of no concern to the Illini. It was the rare good break Illinois has seen roll its way this season. And good breaks only turn into good fortune when you take advantage of them, which the Illini did.

Terrence Shannon Jr. had his best game since dropping 29 points on UCLA in December, scoring 24 to lead Illinois to the 79-69 win over Wisconsin. The Illini have backed that with a 26-point win at Nebraska and a 9-point home win over Michigan State.

The Michigan State win was a gut-check for a team that appeared at risk of splintering at the end of December. The Illini rallied from a 9-point deficit with just under 14 minutes remaining, which is never lightly accomplished against a Tom Izzo-coached team.

The play of center Dain Dainja was the most encouraging aspect of the win. Dainja unexpectedly came out of the gates on fire, hitting double figures in each of his first 4 games as a Fighting Illini. Until Friday night, the only time he did it again was against Bethune-Cookman.

But November Dainja re-emerged against the Spartans. He dominated the paint and led the way with 20 points.

Part of it was Illinois taking advantage of its size against the smallish Spartans. The Illini blocked 10 shots. But if Dainja can be offensively involved with more frequency, Illinois becomes the team that was expected in the preseason.

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Indiana poised for its bounce-back?

Injuries have prevented Indiana from living up to its billing as a preseason top-15 team.

Senior point guard Xavier Johnson underwent foot surgery after an injury at Kansas on Dec. 17. There’s no telling when he’ll be back.

Senior power forward Race Thompson sprained an MCL at Iowa on Jan. 5. He’s expected to be out for a month.

That’s a lot of experience missing from the floor, and that can create a harsh adjustment. But poor defensive play exacerbated the issue.

Indiana squandered an early 28-7 lead over the Hawkeyes, losing 91-89. That was the first of 3 straight losses in which opponents scored more than 80 points on the Hoosiers — something that hadn’t happened since 1998.

A year after having the Big Ten’s best defense, the Hoosiers looked lost. Or even worse, disengaged. Things hit rock-bottom when Penn State hit 18 3-pointers on Wednesday to drop Indiana to 1-4 in the B1G.

It’s no exaggeration to say the Hoosiers had to beat Wisconsin on Saturday to prevent their season from falling off the deep end. They did so, and defense was entirely to thank.

As noted on the CBS broadcast, the Hoosiers skipped Thursday’s practice for an extended 4-hour session on Friday. Mike Woodson’s entire emphasis was on defense.

And that’s why Indiana somehow had a halftime lead against the Badgers despite scoring just 21 points in the first half.

For Indiana fans, the ugliness was a beautiful sight. The tone was set early. Wisconsin had to burn a timeout before the first media timeout of the game because it was unable to inbound against Indiana’s full-court look.

The Hoosiers remained dogged all game long. Wisconsin made 5 of 24 from 3-point range, rarely getting the open looks Penn State feasted on earlier in the week.

How dominant was Indiana’s performance?

The Hoosiers entered Saturday ranked 11th in the B1G in defensive efficiency, 13th in effective field goal percentage and 12th in 3-point defense. Defending Wisconsin moved Indiana up to 8th in defensive efficiency, 7th in effective field goal percentage and 8th in 3-point defense.

At 2-4, Indiana is still looking up at 9 teams in the Big Ten standings. But with a loss, the Hoosiers would have been looking up at 12 teams. And the way it happened was an important reminder that defense is meant to be the calling card of a Woodson-coached team.

Guaranteed momentum awaits

With the Illini and Hoosiers squaring off at State Farm Center this Thursday, the good vibes will continue for 1 of these preseason favorites. It’s the next game on Indiana’s schedule, while Illinois can’t overlook a surprisingly feisty Minnesota team Monday night.

Illinois, which began its bounce-back a week ahead of Indiana, certainly looks closer to its full potential. If the Illini can rattle off both wins this week, the schedule sets up in a friendly enough manner that the winning streak can get to 10 or more games.

Indiana is still in a prove-it mode. Was the effort against a Wahl-less Wisconsin a sign of things to come, or a fluke? Beating the Illini, especially with a strong defensive showing, shows Indiana is moving back in the right direction.

And a loss doesn’t guarantee doom. Michigan State comes to Assembly Hall Sunday. Simply splitting these games keeps the Hoosiers in decent shape. And winning both would send a message that the expected Hoosiers are back.