Today is December 11. IU's season began exactly one month ago. Before the season began, most of us were cautiously optimistic, but mostly cautious. IU's program had steadily upgraded the talent and improved the product since Tom Crean started from square one in April 2008, but even the best IU team of the last three years wasn't close to NIT-worthy, and last year's team was especially frustrating. Think a bit about what the Hoosiers have done in the last month: a 9-0 start, a buzzer-beating win over top-ranked Kentucky, double digit victory margins in every other game, top 15 computer ratings from Sagarin and Pomeroy, and a certain debut in the human polls tomorrow. I thought before the season that a 9-0 start was possible, with only one really tough home game what seemed like winnable road games against NC State and Evansville, but it seemed like the very high end of reasonable optimism and bordering on Pollyanna territory. Most of us would have taken 7-2 sight unseen. After several years in which the worst case scenario wasn't bad enough, it's nice to have even part of a season in which the best case scenario wasn't good enough.
What's nice about the Kentucky win is that while it was an upset, it wasn't a fluke. IU won with perimeter shooting, and offset the expected offensive turnover onslaught by forcing 17 of their own (25 percent). The defense didn't exactly keep Kentucky in check (UK shot 55 percent for the game and 68 percent in the second half) but did prevent UK from matching IU's three point shooting. UK was 2-7 from deep while IU was 9-15. That, really, was the reason Watford was in a position to make the game-winner in the first place. Coming in to the game, Kentucky's three point field goal defense numbers looked good, but the Kentucky commenters who stopped by insisted that it was a relative weakness for UK. It appears they were correct. It should be unsurprising that in a game decided by a buzzer beater, it was pretty even statistically. As I said above, UK shot the ball better than IU, but IU offset that by taking and making a high percentage of three pointers. In turnovers, assists, steals, offensive rebounding percentage (IU 40, UK 39), and free throw rate, the teams were comparable (both teams took 17 free throws, but IU was 14-17 while UK was 10-17). It was a game that could have gone either way, and thankfully it went IU's way. Most encouragingly, I think IU can play better, and the effort, from wire to wire in nearly every game, has been great. It was disappointing to have given up big leads in both the first and second halves, but as they did against NC State, the Hoosiers didn't quit and didn't panic. The poise that Jones and Watford showed on that final play was remarkable.
Individual performances of note:
As I said last night, Christian Watford was huge, and it's a well-deserved moment for a much-maligned Hoosier. While some of the criticism of Watford was over the top, it is true that last season, he tended to disappear against top-flight competition. Not last night. 20 points on 8-15 shooting, including 4-6 from deep. As I said in my preview, Watford is the only IU player, other than Cody Zeller, who was a recruit of the caliber of all of Kentucky's players. Last night, it showed.
Cody Zeller wasn't as big a part of the offense as would have been preferred, but he held his own against tough competition: 11 points, 4-8 from the field, 3-3 from the line, 7 boards. Much was made, particularly by Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale, of IU's failure to feed the post during the final five or seven minutes of the game. I don't think they were off-base, and I would have liked to see more of it, and it sounds as if Tom Crean agreed, based on postgame comments. I think there are a few things at work. First, it's been clear all season that IU's guards haven't completely absorbed how to use a big man of Zeller's caliber. Second, Verdell Jones III, for as well as he played in the final seconds last night, has limitations as a point guard, and I imagine that the guards were cautious, perhaps excessively so, because of UK's disruptive defense. I think the factor that makes me wish Crean had called a timeout and focused on feeding the post is that Anthony Davis had four fouls, and IU played noticeably better when Davis was on the bench. But neither Vitale nor anyone else was complaining about IU's failure to feed the post when the Hoosiers made seven three pointers in a row. IU won the game on the perimeter. Still, the general point that IU can't forget about Zeller is well-taken.
Jordan Hulls didn't extend his free throw shooting streak, but he did everything else. He scored 11 points, on 4-7/3-6 shooting, and while he had 5 turnovers, he had 5 assists and 4 steals.
Victor Oladipo was a very good counter to Kentucky's athleticism. He was only 4-12 shooting, but he was tied for Zeller with 7 boards and got to the basket quite a bit.
Sheehey played a surprisingly low 16 minutes, but as always, made the most of it with 10 points on 3-8 shooting.
Verdell Jones III didn't play a mistake free game, but he had the assist for the ages, and was 4-5 from the line.
Despite giving away the 8 point lead just before halftime, I was thrilled that IU was playing so hard and had been able to have some success against a team that is absolutely loaded. I was impressed with Kentucky, but some of their late game problems (such as not fouling on the final possession when John Calipari clearly wanted them to do so) are part of the reality of Kentucky's high-talent, low-experience strategy. It will be interesting to see how the season transpires, and I suppose we should wish them well, as it will help our strength of schedule from here on out. Of course, it doesn't matter what we wish them. They aren't going to lose many games.
So, thanks to some late heroics, IU can add another chapter to the lore. There has been a lot of talk, here and elsewhere, about whether IU basketball "is back." That really depends on what people mean. If by back, they mean firmly in NCAA contention, a tough out at home, and a reasonable threat on the road, then yes, I think that is how this team is measuring up. Still, truly getting "back" to what we ultimately expect of the program involves wins in March and April, not December. This was a great win and an important step, and I'm thrilled that IU appears to be on track for a competitive Big Ten season and a possible NCAA Tournament berth. But there is more work to be done.
The next team on the agenda is Notre Dame, next weekend at the Crossroads Classic at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. This is only the second time in the last five seasons that the Hoosiers have played a non-conference game in Indianapolis. The Irish, a two seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, have been struggling with injuries and attrition, but shouldn't be taken lightly. Pomeroy rates this as IU's third-toughest of the non-conference schedule, and I'm very glad that IU has a week to recover, take final exams, and prepare for ND. Meanwhile, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Someone has been kind enough to sync Don Fischer's call with the video of last night's game-winner. Enjoy: