IU knocked off a top five team for the third time this season, but on this occasion, there were no desperation three pointers or last minute heroics. Unlike the Kentucky and Ohio State games, both of which could have gone either way, IU controlled last night's game against Michigan State essentially from wire to wire. IU took the lead for good before the first media timeout, and denied the Spartans the outright Big Ten title, at least for now.
How did IU do it? How did the Hoosiers dominate a team that hadn't lost a game in a month, a team that dominated Ohio State on the Buckeyes' homecourt? In large part, by not stepping back from the physical challenge that the Spartans always present. IU accumulated its lead with the ball in the hands of Victor Oladipo. For much of the first half, MSU had no answer for Oladipo, who took the ball to the hole and either scored or forced the Spartans to foul him. Oladipo scored 11 of his 13 in the first half, including 7-8 from the line. IU shot reasonably well (47 percent), was much more productive than MSU at the line (19-22 compared to 10-17), won the turnover battle decisively (IU turned it over 15.3 percent of the time to the Spartans' 22 percent), and perhaps most importantly, held their own on the boards. IU didn't win the rebound battle, but the percentages were close enough to be a wash (37.1 OR percentage for the Spartans, 34.6 for IU). As I mentioned in the preview, MSU's success, although not as much this year as in previous years, is to own the boards to a degree that they overwhelm any advantages the other team might have. Going toe to toe with the Spartans on the glass is more than half the battle, but it easier said than done. Last night, it was done.
And what about Christian Watford? Wat has taken a fair amount of heat for his intensity, some of it deserved, and some of it, I really believe, because his physical appearance is such that he looks like he's half-asleep even when he is playing hard. Regardless, he was simply a beast on the boards, with 14, including 11 on the defensive end. He nearly doubled up every other player in the game (Draymond Green had 8). There were plenty of heroes last night, but that is the most eye-popping stat. A year ago, how many IU fans would have thought it possible for Christian Watford to pull down 14 boards against Michigan State?
Other individual performances of note:
- Cody Zeller had a very nice game offensively, scoring 18 points on 7-12 from field and 4-5 from the line. He also had 3 steals against a team that normally is pretty sure-handed. The play that he made where he stepped out to the perimeter, picked someone's pocket, and took it to the hole was simply sublime. It was one thing when he did that against Stony Brook, but this was Michigan State! My reaction from the couch was, "that's just not right." He is the most skilled big man I have ever seen in an IU uniform, and anyone who doesn't vote for him as Big Ten freshman of the year should not be taken seriously by anyone, ever, on any topic.
- Jordan Hulls continues to bounce back offensively, scoring 10 points and shooting 2-5 from deep. A couple of the shots were forced, but I would rather see too much aggressiveness from Jordy than not enough.
- Verdell Jones III played well in his new role off the bench, scoring 12 points in 24 minutes and shooting 6-7 from the line.
- Finally, my bullet points are usually IU focused, but Draymond Green was incredible. He scored 29 points, more than half of MSU's total. Without Green's numbers, MSU was 10-34 from the field, 2-7 from deep, and 4-10 from the line. He was the only reason that the Spartans were able to cling to some hope for a comeback until the final couple of minutes.
As I said last night, this was not IU's most exciting win of the season, but it was the most satisfying, in large part because the last couple of minutes provided an opportunity to sit back and reflect on the season and the team's performance. IU now stands at 23-7, plus-eleven on last year's win total even if the Hoosiers don't win another game. We're guaranteed a winning record in the Big Ten. If a) Northwestern knocks off Ohio State tonight; and b) Michigan and Wisconsin each win one more game, then IU will be in the driver's seat for the #4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Other than one flat performance against Minnesota, Assembly Hall has again become a house of horrors for opponents. Finally, after the late season collapses of 2010 and 2011, it's refreshing to see that IU seems to be playing its best basketball at the right time.
Still, there is one more order of business: Purdue. IU won comfortably in West Lafayette the last time, but it's undeniable that Purdue is playing much better right now, and has been very good on the road, including in their last game, a 14 point win at Michigan. This season is beyond the point where a loss to Purdue would be ruinous, but any loss to Purdue at home, ever, is an abomination, and especially on Senior Night. As before, and especially without Kelsey Barlow (yeah, yeah, addition by subtraction), I think IU is a tough matchup for the Boilermakers, but like IU, they are playing their best ball right now as well. Fortunately, Purdue basketball typically turns into a pumpkin when the calendar turns to March, so we will see.
Finally, let's hear it for Tom Crean. He has taken a beating over the last couple of years about his coaching ability, mostly from opposing fans but to some degree from IU fans. He has done a fantastic job with this team. Nearly everyone on this squad has gotten better, and his gameplan last night, against his mentor Tom Izzo, was quite effective. IU's midseason swoon against Nebraska and the Gophers seems to have removed Crean from the coach of the year discussions, but I think that a win over Purdue and a solid performance in the Big Ten Tournament would make Crean a solid candidate on the national level. In the Big Ten, while John Beilein, Tom Izzo, and Bo Ryan all have done good work, I still think Crean is the obvious choice (not Zeller over Trey Burke obvious, but obvious enough). We're very fortunate to have him.