It took seven weeks. After losing to Butler on December 15th, the Indiana Hoosiers would weave their way through a handful of meaningless non-conference games, some games against the back half of the Big Ten, and would slip one time at home to an always bothersome Wisconsin squad. But mix in home wins against Minnesota, Michigan State, and now the soon-to-be former number one team in the country in Michigan, and the Hoosiers will climb to the top spot in the country for the second time this season.
What does it all mean? I think it was best summed up by Tom Crean in one of the final questions in last night’s post-game press conference. “It means we had better come out ready to play on Thursday against Illinois,” stated Crean. Fame has been fleeting as the country’s top ranked team.
Duke held the top spot for four straight weeks after Indiana’s first loss of the season. And now in the four weeks since that time including the rankings set to come out tomorrow, four different teams will hold the number one spot in the AP rankings: Louisville, Duke, Michigan, and now Indiana. That doesn’t even include Kansas, who had not grabbed the top spot in the AP, but was sitting at the head of the USA Today rankings last week. Of course, they lost as well.
Folks, Indiana will lose again some time this season. In fact, they will lose again multiple times this season. The Big Ten is simply too good for any team to come through unscathed. It might be miraculous if the Hoosiers can come through this week alone without a loss. They’ve got to travel to Illinois and Ohio State. The Illini might be struggling, but they still own wins over Butler, Gonzaga, and Ohio State. And Columbus is the only other place where Michigan had gone done in defeat before last night.
What the significance of last night’s win was all about was avoiding a misstep in the fight for the Big Ten crown, and in the larger picture, a number one seed in the NCAA tourney. With so many great teams in the Midwest, it’s like a turf war to see who gets to play closest to home in the opening rounds, then who can plant their flag at Lucas Oil Stadium the last weekend in March.
Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Butler, Louisville, and to a lesser degree Kansas are all fighting to run their regional location in Indy. The trio of other Big Ten teams wouldn’t be able to play each other until a regional final. Michigan and Indiana are both hopeful of grabbing number one seeds. If that happens, which one gets to stay closer to home? That’s why last night’s win was so important for Indiana. It’s one of three potential meetings between the two before the NCAA tournament. There are now two more chances for each to get a leg up on the other and avoid heading off to DC, LA, or Jerry World (Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX) for the regional round of the big dance.
The musical chairs for the top ranking in the country will likely stop the next time Indiana loses. Florida will slot in right behind the Hoosiers in tomorrow’s rankings, and it’s becoming more and more apparent than no one in the SEC is close to the Gators. Florida has one game remaining against a top 25 team, at Missouri on February 19th. They’ll also finish at Kentucky on March 9th. The number one spot if or when the Hoosiers slip could be Florida’s for awhile.
But that’s truly of little importance to Indiana. It’s about earning a number one seed, and staying ahead of the other teams in their own backyard, especially those in the Big Ten that matters most in the big picture.
Lasting impressions from the game
Several to be had here. First, the decibel level recorded inside the building last night reached 116db. At 115 db, that compares to a loud rock concert or sandblasting. Ear pain begins at 125db. My ears are still ringing as I write this, hence why I bring this up first. The start of last night’s game likely induced seismic activity in southern Indiana. To go five minutes into the game and not miss a field goal is ridiculous. And while Michigan never went away in the game, they also never had a lead in the game either.
There’s little doubt that Indiana’s starting five is the best offensive grouping in all of college basketball. They all scored in double figures, and all hit at least 50 percent or better from the floor. They also combined to dish out 12 assists, and go 20-23 from the free throw line. The fluidity of movement when those five are on the floor is truly a thing of beauty.
And Jeremy Hollowell was outstanding in short bursts of the bench on Saturday night. He’d finish with four points, four boards, three blocks, and an assist in 10 minutes. Hoosiers fans can now stop holding their breath every time he touches the ball. He had no fear of the moment last night on a grand stage. In other words, he didn’t play like a freshman.
Finally, Trey Burke is a player. The shots might have been missing down the stretch out of sheer fatigue, but his ability to create space for himself against taller defenders was impressive. That step back three from 25 feet to end the half produced a groan of amazement from the Hoosier faithful. All three of the national player of the year candidates (Burke, Zeller, Oladipo) did nothing to hurt their chances with their performances on the national stage.