If there was any question left about who the best player is on this Indiana team -- not who has the highest ceiling, not who will come off the board the quickest in the NBA Draft, not who garnered all of the preseason attention -- Victor Oladipo answered it time after time today.
Oladipo set the tone early, swiping a steal and throwing down a one-handed jam 15 seconds into the game.
He didn't let up over the next 39 minutes and 45 seconds.
Oladipo totaled 21 points (on 8-of-12 shooting), seven rebounds, a career-high six steals and three blocks to lead Indiana to a 75-70 win over Michigan State Sunday afternoon inside Assembly Hall.
"That's just Victor now," said Christian Watford, according to IUHoosiers.com. "It's definitely a part of our offense now. We feel like we're a great team when Victor does do this. He brings a lot of energy. Not only that, he gets us open by the way he attacks the basket. He did a great job today."
Indiana coach Tom Crean said that Oladipo recorded 15 first-half deflections -- something Crean had never seen -- on his way to four steals in the opening 20 minutes.
"I think if you look at his numbers," Crean said, marveling at Oladipo's year-to-year progression, "and we did this the other day, if you look at his numbers six games into the Big Ten last year into six games this year, (his improvement is) astronomical, and I’m sure we will see the same thing when we look at the stats from last year to this year after seven games. He just keeps getting better."
The win, as of now, puts Indians (18-2, 6-1) in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings. With a win later today over Illinois, No. 2 Michigan would pull into a tie with the Hoosiers.
Both Indiana and Michigan State brought their 'A' games to this one as the nationally-televised contest between two Big Ten titans lived up to the billing.
"I think that’s why," Crean said, "after the game with the CBS interview, Greg Anthony said that this game had the feel and the execution of a Final Four game, and I hope he’s right because I think they are really, really good. For us to get this win in this environment, for us to make the plays that we made especially at the end, for us to make the defensive stops that we made to get the buckets that we needed to get, I thought that was huge."
Indiana -- who has nine wins over ranked foes in the past 24 months -- hit 51 percent of its shots, including 8 of 21 from beyond the arc. The Spartans nailed 11 of 23 3-pointers, three more than they had made in any game this year.
Cody Zeller was silent for most of the game and finished with nine points and seven rebounds, but the Preseason Player of the Year candidate came up with two key plays down the stretch. Zeller drove through the lane and dropped in a layup -- one of his two baskets -- to make it a two-possession game at the 1:38 mark. With 14.3 seconds left and Indiana clinging to a four-point lead, Zeller drew a charge to all but seal the victory.
Christian Watford recorded 12 points and six rebounds. Yogi Ferrell added 11 points, and Jordan Hulls scored 10 points to go with four assists.
"This is a big game; it's definitely going to help us down the road," said Watford. "I feel like Michigan State is a great team. They never stop fighting. That's definitely how it's going to be in the tournament. Teams are definitely not going to give up. It was a great team win for us."
Gary Harris, who spurned Indiana to play for Michigan State, led the Spartans with 21 points, sinking five 3-pointers. Adreian Payne netted 18 points, hitting three treys, which matched his season total prior to today's contest. Branden Dawson added 12 points and eight boards. Keith Appling battled foul trouble all game, scoring three points without registering an assist before fouling out with 5:14 to play.
"We did some really good things," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, "and we did some really poor things. Our whole plan was to keep them out of the lane and not turn the ball over, and we didn’t do either one of those things very well. We got tired. We were doing so well down the stretch, and with three minutes left we had a chance. It’s disappointing. We had a chance but we just didn’t do some of the things we needed to."
The two teams exchanged punches in the first half, with Michigan State nosing in front 31-30 late in the stanza. Indiana closed the half with a 3-point barrage. Will Sheehey, Hulls and Ferrell all knocked down triples, and the Hoosiers took a 44-38 lead into the break.
Indiana led 50-43 with 16:28 remaining and had the look of a team ready to pull away, but Harris -- who was the target of some not-so-welcoming chants in his first collegiate game back in his home state -- kept the Spartans in it, making back-to-back 3-pointers in a 50-second stretch.
"Gary Harris," Izzo said, "has been one of the best freshmen I’ve ever had because he does something that most don’t: he plays both ends of the court. He’s a very good defensive player, and I never thought he’d be a great shooter, but his high school coach told me that since he went straight from football to basketball he needed a little more time. The kid is tougher than nails. He took a serious beating and made some big shots. We feel very fortunate. We love Gary, and he raises his game in big situations. A two-guard that plays both ends of the court doesn’t happen very often in college basketball."
The battle was on from there. The Hoosiers never led by more than six the rest of the way, but Michigan State was never able to tie the score or take the lead.
With Indiana up by two in the final minutes, Zeller dashed through an opening in the defense and banked in a layup to push the Hoosiers in front 74-70 with 1:38 to go. The teams traded missed shots before Payne crashed into Zeller for an offensive foul with 14 ticks left.
"It was a hard-nosed game," Crean said. "It was a high-level game and they are a great team, and that’s why it’s a great win for us."
The win gets the Hoosiers off to a good start on their brutal five-game stretch. Indiana hits the road Wednesday night to face rival Purdue at 8:30 p.m. before hosting Michigan Saturday in a much-anticipated showdown. The following week, Indiana has road games at Illinois and Ohio State on the slate.