Indiana proves it's back with an outright conference championship for the first time in 20 years.
By TULLY CORCORAN FS Southwest
Indiana was back. That was the idea when the season began. The Hoosiers were No. 1. They had a candidate for player of the year. Yes, finally Indiana basketball was back to being a national power.
It is not as though the Hoosiers disappeared for 20 years. There was the Final Four in 2002 and the Hoosiers have played in the NCAA Tournament 15 times in the past 20 years. Indiana has been relevant this whole time.
But at places like Indiana it's not about being relevant, it's about winning trophies.
And so 20 years after Indiana last won an outright conference championship, the Hoosiers have done it again, conquering the most challenging league in the country and beating Michigan by the smallest of margins – literally, half the width of the rim – to put up another trophy at Assembly Hall. It is the program's 21st conference title.
"We're not done yet," guard Jordan Hulls said.
Of course not. Indiana will have as good a look as anybody at a national title, mainly because in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo it has two players good enough to be the player of the year in college basketball.
But March is a mess, and the NCAA Tournament is a cruel carnival game. In college hoops, the best team fails to win the title more than in any other sport because the singe-elimination playoff structure only amplifies the already random nature of ball going in basket vs. ball missing by half the width of the rim.
So conference championships should be celebrated. They represent performance against the surges and lulls of a two-month grind.
The Hoosiers had to pick themselves up early. They lost in just their fourth conference game, and it was at home to Wisconsin. And then, as so many good teams do, they slogged through February. It's a tough month for college basketball teams, especially the ones that already know they're really good. A season which began in mid-October is not only still going but quite often the winter has started to break into spring just a little, and the NCAA Tournament is right there and the conference race is down to you and one or two other teams and this weird cocktail of boredom, anxiety and exhaustion pulls you down.
Before Sunday's win over Michigan, IU had lost two of its previous three games and three of its previous eight. The Hoosiers, then, experienced the rejuvenating effect of needing to prove something, and for those purposes it was awfully convenient that No. 7 Michigan was the last team on the schedule.
The game was everything such a game should have been. Zeller, whose POY candidacy had taken a beating during conference play, rose to the top Sunday, scoring a game-high 25 points to go with 10 rebounds. Michigan's Trey Burke, maybe the country's strongest POY candidate, countered with 20 despite a bad shooting day. The lead changed hands 14 times, and the Hoosiers overcame an 11-point deficit over the final five minutes, going, of course, to Zeller when it needed a bucket most.
Indiana most likely won't finish the regular season No. 1, but the Hoosiers nonetheless proved everybody right. They are back, and they have a trophy to prove it. Calipari disappointed, but why?
Kentucky possibly saved itself from the NIT wasteland by beating Florida over the weekend. The win was dramatically timed, because just days earlier coach John Calipari was ripping himself.
"I am so disappointed in the job I've done with this team," he said after the Wildcats lost to Georgia. "I can't even begin to tell you."
Calipari and melodrama are buddies, so this wasn't a shocking thing for him to say. But given Calipari's philosophy on personnel, it is a curious narrative he's constructing here.
If I remember correctly, it seemed like every single player on Kentucky's roster last season was a first-round NBA draft pick last June. Even the walkons. And yet Cal has managed to squeeze 21 wins and a 12-6 SEC record out of his team this year despite having to replace his entire roster and air up all the basketballs again.
I get that expectations at Kentucky are high, but aren't seasons like this one merely a natural and predictable consequence of a recruiting philosophy built around replacing one-year players with more one-year players? Isn't it sort of easy to forecast that not every top-10 recruit is ready to lead a team to the Final Four and get taken seventh in the draft?
And let's not act like a 10-loss season is some kind of nadir. The Wildcats recently had a four-year stretch (2006-09) in which they lost at least 12 games and didn't get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
None of this means Calipari shouldn't be disappointed, but maybe a couple drops of realistic perspective in the Lexington water couldn't hurt.
The curious case of Bruce Weber
Remember when Bruce Weber got fired for being a bad coach? Yeah, it was like a year ago. No, seriously. Illinois fired him because he won just 58 percent of his conference games in nine seasons and hadn't been to the Sweet 16 since 2005.
Well, Kansas State hired him, and he's the Big 12 coach of the year because he shared the Big 12 regular-season championship with Kansas. That's K-State's first conference title since 1977. Kansas State didn't suffer a single bad loss all season.
Not so fast.
Remember that 58 percent Big Ten winning percentage? That included his first two seasons when he went a combined 28-4 in the league with a roster largely recruited by Bill Self. By Weber's fourth season at Illinois, the program had started to slip. There were ninth-place finishes in 2008 and 2012 and the Illini appeared in the NCAA Tournament just twice in Weber's final five seasons.
This is why Kansas State fans, by and large, were disappointed in the hire.
They aren't disappointed today, but this is a veteran roster assembled and developed by Frank Martin (who is now at South Carolina). Weber deserves credit for pulling that team together, but this is a man constructing a curious legacy of succeeding with other people's teams.
The biggest challenge at Kansas State has always been recruiting. There are less than three million people in the state of Kansas and the best in-state kids tend to end up in crimson and blue. Martin succeeded in recruiting because of deep relationships with two specific AAU programs – the D.C. Assault and the Miami Tropics.
Weber does not appear to have any such pipelines, and had not been particularly successful recruiting Chicago anyway.
The whole thing is so very unusual. Weber does seem to have an obvious skill, but you wonder if that skill is too specific.
13 – Conference championships, in 16 tries at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas, for Bill Self. Self, who coached at Oral Roberts when the school was an independent, has never finished lower than third in a conference race. 17.6 – Scoring average for Indiana's Victor Oladipo against Top 25 teams. Oladipo averages 12.3 points against unranked opponents.
They said it
"Have faith? Go to church? Maybe that's what we need to -- go to church as a team and pray for each other." -- Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein on how the Wildcats could turn around their season. In its next game, UK upset Florida."
"You know what you did. You helped wreck our program." – Indiana coach Tom Crean, to Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer, immediately following Indiana's win over the Wolverines on Sunday. Crean did not publicly clarify those remarks, and has since apologized. Meyer was an assistant at Indiana under Kelvin Sampson from 2006-08, during which time the Hoosiers ended up under NCAA sanctions. Crean replaced Sampson in 2008.
Player of the year watch
Been a while since we talked about Cody Zeller in this space. His teammate Victor Oladipo is such an exciting little devil (and such a superior NBA prospect) that he has gotten most of the attention over the past month or so.
This is not meant as a neg against Oladipo, it's just that he's sort of like the best baked potato you've ever had, while Zeller is a pretty good steak.
Zeller was the best player on the floor against Michigan, and that includes Trey Burke. The comparison is somewhat unfair because Michigan's post presence is the Wolverines' biggest weakness, but coming up big in the biggest game of the college basketball season should get Zeller back into the conversation.
Ups and downs
Up: Baylor Beating Kansas on Saturday gives the underachieving Bears hope on Selection Sunday.
Down: Florida This is what we get for believing our eyes when Florida was shooting to the top of the polls. The Gators have lost three of their past six and haven't even played a ranked team in a month.
Up: Tennessee The Vols are getting some hype as a tournament team all the sudden, and I'm fine with that, I guess. But why would Tennessee (19-11, 11-7 SEC) be a tournament team if Ole Miss (23-8, 12-6, 2-0 vs. Tennessee) wasn't?
Down: Colorado The poor Buffaloes. They just can't seem to put anything together. Beat Arizona on Valentine's Day and have since lost to Arizona State, Cal and lowly Oregon State.
Up: Oklahoma State For the first time, the Cowboys beat every other Big 12 team at least once.
Down: Illinois Remember when Illinois was ranked 10th? That was this season, you know. It makes it clear there was a bit of a "every Big Ten team must be awesome" factor going on there. The Illini have lost three of their past four and are 8-10 in the league.
Somebody that shouldn't win the SEC tournament wins the SEC tournament and really messes up Selection Sunday. Somebody like Ole Miss.
If West Virginia and Texas Tech play a Big 12 tournament game in Missouri, and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen? Prediction: No.
Gonzaga uses the West Coast Conference tournament to rest up for the NCAA Tournament.