Hoosiers finally play like No. 1 team in beating top-ranked Michigan
BLOOMINGTON, Ind -- No chance he could catch it. As soon as the long-range lob left Jordan Hulls' hands from the right wing, he wanted it back: "I instantly thought, 'turnover'," he said. The alley-oop was so far behind Indiana's Victor Oladipo, who was already closing in on the left block at breakneck speed, that it looked destined to land five rows up in the seats.
But there's a reason Oladipo's name is so often shouted by television announcers as if its proper form was in all caps with an exclamation mark appended: The 6-foot-4 junior guard has the ability to do absurdly athletic things, and here with 7:49 left in the game and the Hoosiers leading top-ranked Michigan 57-53, he leapt and leaned backwards at an absurd angle, spearing the errant lob with an outstretched right arm. Fans behind the basket began to rise, mouths agape, as Oladipo redirected its flight pattern rimward.
Time seemed to slow, and a sold-out Assembly Hall, which was said to have reached 116 decibels -- somewhere between rock concert and chainsaw on the loudness spectrum -- earlier in the game, was about to ... well, there would be much speculation about what might have happened, had Oladipo not rammed the ball off the front of the iron and sent it ricocheting many stories in the air, while the roar deflated into a collective ohhhhhhhhhh.
Would it have been the end of this 41-year-old building? Would it have given up and collapsed into a heap of rubble after conceding that it could never witness a greater feat? Would I be writing this while huddled beside a bonfire of bleachers and floorboards, trying to pass on the Legend of Victor Oladipo before my laptop battery died? I am happy, for the sake of my warmth, that the Hall still stands, and that all we saw on Saturday night was the Almost Dunk of the Season.
And I think the Hoosiers are too, because it allowed them to finish off an 81-73 win over the Wolverines that should catapult No. 3 Indiana back to No. 1 in the polls on Monday. And because up until Saturday, Indiana had been the Almost Team of the Season, the one that we anointed No. 1 in the offseason -- "When," as coach Tom Crean likes to say, "we hadn't done anything yet" -- and then proceeded to pick them apart in November, December and January.
It went like this: The Hoosiers almost looked like a title team, if only Cody Zeller could assert himself and play like the Wooden Award winner everyone expected him to be. They almost looked like a title team, if their offense didn't settle for so many early jumpers. They almost looked like a title team, if only Oladipo wasn't their only lockdown defender. They almost looked like a title team, if only they didn't get out-toughed by the likes of Butler and Wisconsin. Indiana was almost living up to our expectations, but never fully getting there.
Until Saturday, that is. The biggest game of the regular season -- not just IU's or the Big Ten's regular season, but all of college basketball's -- came to Bloomington, and Indiana finally put forth a full effort befitting a No. 1. This was the powerhouse that writers and fans envisioned in the offseason, starting with Zeller, who had been absent from so much of the Hoosiers' win over Michigan State last Sunday that Spartans coach Tom Izzo opined, "To be a championship-caliber team, I think they need more out of him."
Against Michigan, IU got plenty out of Zeller, including three highlight-reel dunks -- all ferocious put-backs -- that actually went in. He was a near-perfect model of aggressiveness and efficiency, going 8-for-10 from the field, 3-of-4 from the line, and grabbing 10 rebounds, the final one an offensive hustle-play that clinched the victory with 1:45 left. Zeller said that his exceptional level of energy was due, in part, to the game's 9 p.m. tipoff: "It gives me more time to nap."
A well-rested Big Handsome wasn't the only one driving the Hoosiers' offense. Crean had harped on them in recent weeks for not rotating the ball enough and forcing opponents to defend, but here, on their first eight possessions of the game, smart passing led to four of their starters (everyone but Hulls) combining to score 18 points without missing a single shot. When Michigan finally scrambled out of that 18-7 hole to tie the game at 40-40, Indiana answered with another four-man, 11-0 run to break things back open. All five starters finished in double-figures and they shot 52 percent from the field as a team.
What the Hoosiers need to be most proud of, however, is their defense, which has always been their biggest "almost": Last season they ranked 64th in defensive efficiency, which was what held them back from being anything more than a Sweet 16 team; they came into this game ranked 16th, which was almost elite, but not quite. Michigan brought in the No. 1 most-efficient offense and the No. 1 most-efficient, high-usage point guard Trey Burke, and we wondered how IU would try to stop him: Sick Oladipo on him and live with mismatches elsewhere on the perimeter? Go with the 6-9 Christian Watford, who drew the assignment (and did it quite well) in their final meeting last season?
The answer was to give freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell the job, with relief by a committee of Will Sheehey, Remy Abell and Oladipo. Together they held Burke to a result they could live with: 9-of-24 shooting for 25 points. Watford spent his time locking down Wolverines freshman Glenn Robinson III, who had just two points on 1-of-6 shooting. Hulls, generally a weak defender, did an admirable job on sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, who was just 1-of-5 from long range. Zeller kept Michigan's interior players for making any significant impact, and Oladipo waged a general campaign of harassment against Tim Hardaway Jr. (18 points) and Burke. The cumulative result was rather impressive: Michigan's offense scored just 1.06 points per possession, its second-worst game of the season.
Crean said that the Hoosiers had wanted to prove to themselves they were a legitimately improved defensive team from a year ago, and really, Michigan was the ultimate test. There is no better point guard than Burke, and there is no better or more versatile perimeter-scoring team in the country. If you can stop Michigan, you can stop anyone. And if you can stop Michigan for 40 minutes in front of a raucous crowd and still have energy to spare, as Oladipo did, you might be inclined to hunt for another, non-clanked exclamation mark.
It was a regrettable thing, really, that when Oladipo got the ball in the open court, with just a few seconds left in the game and the Hoosiers up 81-73, he did not just dribble out the clock. What he did, instead, was throw down a windmill dunk as the backboard lit up and the buzzer went off. It did not count, but Crean apologized to Michigan coach John Beilein for it anyway, and Oladipo apologized for it to the media.
As Oladipo was walking in to the press conference with his teammates, Watford asked him how he planned to explain the dunk. The question would undoubtedly come up. Oladipo shrugged and said, "Adrenaline, bruh."
The translation being that the Hoosiers' home crowd -- many of whom had, just four seasons ago in this same building, watched Michigan pull off a 20-point, second-half comeback to beat Crean's first IU team, which finished an abysmal 1-17 in the Big Ten -- had hyped up Oladipo to the point that he could not think rationally.
He was going on adrenaline, bruh. He wanted to make amends for the Almost Dunk of the Season, when none were necessary. The Hoosiers had finally delivered a complete performance, two halves of contender-caliber basketball, and that was more than enough.