IU spotted Minnesota a 6-0 lead, and it seemed like one of IU's unfortunately common listless road starts. Fortunately, the Hoosiers bounced right back, took the lead for good less than five minutes into the game, and coasted to victory over a Minnesota team that looked like it would rather be somewhere else. As is typical against the Gophers, the Hoosiers' offense was not a thing of beauty, but IU outhustled Minnesota all day at both ends of the court, and held Minnesota to 31 percent shooting on the day.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this game is that IU won despite a rough day for Cody Zeller (3-8 shooting, 7 points, 4 fouls, 18 minutes) and both Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls seemed to revive offensively. Watford, Hulls, and Victor Oladipo tied for the scoring lead with 12 points each, and both Watford and Hulls shot 50 percent from the field (and Watford made his only three point attempt while Hulls shot 2-4). Outside shooting was really the only offensive strength for either team. IU shot in the low 40s in both two point and three point field goals. Minnesota shot 7-17 from three point range, but an astounding 11-41 from two point range. As has been this team's trademark, and is perhaps the best illustration of the assertiveness of this team today, IU shot 21-25 from the line. As comfortable as the game felt all day, the only major statistical differences between the teams were in two point shooting percentage and free threows; rebound percentage, turnovers, three point shooting, etc. were fairly even.
This was exactly what the doctor ordered and exactly what I hoped would happen. The 6-0 start was troubling, but was not an omen of things to come. IU quickly took control of the game. I was very surprised by the feel of that game--the Minnesota team, the crowd, the coaches, the empty seats. As I said in the game thread, it had a very IU-in-2005 feel to it. I certainly think that Tubby Smith is a good coach, and the injury problems (Al Nolen last season, Trevor Mbakwe this season, have made a difference. But the Gophers did not look like a tough team this afternoon. Perhaps they spent all that they had left in falling just short of Michigan State a few days ago. Regardless, Williams Arena, a place that has been unfriendly to IU over the years, was very hospitable today. As I noted a few days ago, it's a very nice feeling to avenge an early home loss by going on the road and winning, and it's a very rare feeling for IU fans: this is the first time since 1986 that IU has avenged an earlier home loss to a Big Ten team with a road win later in the same season.
So, where does this leave the Hoosiers? With a very solid record of 22-7/9-9. Finally, after adding qualifiers and knocking on wood for the last few weeks, it now can be said with certainty: IU is going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. Tom Pritchard, Verdell Jones III, Matt Roth, and Daniel Moore (and human victory cigar Kory Barnett), who began their careers going 6-25 as freshmen, forced into playing time as part of one of the most substantial rebuilding jobs in the recent history of college basketball, will end their careers on the national stage. Thanks to the timely win over Minnesota, IU can regard the upcoming home games against Michigan State and Purdue as opportunities, and not with desperation. Believe it or not, IU remains ever so slightly in the hunt for the four seed and a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. If IU wins out and finishes 11-7, IU could get the four seed in one of two ways. The first and least likely would be if Wisconsin loses out in home games to Minnesota and Illinois. Yeah, that isn't going to happen. The other possibility, however, which seemed like the most fanciful option just a few hours ago, would be if Ohio State loses out. The Buckeyes now stand at 11-5 in the Big Ten after today's surprising home loss to Wisconsin. Ohio State finishes out on the road: first, the Buckeyes travel to Northwestern, where they will face a Wildcat team that might secure its first NCAA Tournament berth with a win over OSU. After that, OSU travels to Michigan State, which will be a very tough place to win on senior night. I won't be surprised if OSU digs deep and wins both of those games, but the Buckeyes have looked pretty human over the last few days. Frankly, it might be best for IU if the Buckeyes get things together, because a major slide by OSU would do some small degree of damage to the second-best win on IU's resume.
Whatever happens, we know that we will see "Indiana" on a line, somewhere, two weeks from tonight. Very good news, indeed.