Hoosiers make huge statement vs. Ohio State

COLUMBUS, Ohio — No. 1 keeps falling. Crazy upsets keep happening. It’s been that kind of college basketball season; by now, it’s more than a trend.

The thought, though, that there’s no clear-cut best team right now, five weeks from Selection Sunday?

Indiana strongly stated its argument against that theory on Sunday. More accurately, what No. 1 Indiana did is bully No. 10 Ohio State, 81-68, securing a rare and tough-to-come-by Big Ten road win and officially leaving whatever happened in last Thursday’s upset loss at Illinois in the rearview.

There might be several teams that get No. 1 votes in the new polls on Monday. Then again, if enough people watched the Hoosiers’ poise and efficiency in dismantling an Ohio State defense that came in allowing just 58 points per game, there might only be one.

The Hoosiers play fast, score fast, and though they’re not without flaws — or the occasional misstep, as the Illinois game would attest — they look like a team that can be atop a bracket line and worthy of playing in a bracket that would lead to Atlanta via way of the Indianapolis Regional.

Indiana has two National Player of the Year candidates in 7-footer Cody Zeller and 6-5, do-it-all guy Victor Oladipo. On Sunday, Oladipo scored 26 and had eight rebounds, Zeller had 24 and eight rebounds and 6-9 swingman Christian Watford had 20 points on 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc. Four different Hoosiers made 3-pointers, and Indiana for much of the game looked close to unguardable.

“I hear the talk about National Player of the Year, but we’re focused on the team,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “We’re trying to have the best team, but you don’t have the best team without standout players. Victor, Cody and Christian played as well (Sunday) as three guys could. It was at both ends of the floor.

“I wouldn’t trade Cody. And I think if you polled coaches around the country, they’d like to have Cody. And I think most coaches would like to have Victor Oladipo, too.”

Indiana moves to 21-3 overall and 9-2 in the rugged Big Ten. Ohio State slips to 17-6 and 7-4. The Buckeyes have also lost to No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Kansas, but not in the way Indiana just kind of ran away from them Sunday.  

Crean said he’s had teams in the past that didn’t have the firepower to match Ohio State, and even some that could score but couldn’t match the Buckeyes’ toughness. Looking forward, there’s no question about the firepower part. The toughness can be proven — or even improved — in looming road games at Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan.

There are no breathers in the Big Ten. In the last eight days Indiana has blitzed both Michigan and Ohio State. What happened in between might just be a sign of the landscape; in the bounceback performance in Columbus, there were certainly no warning signs or trouble spots for the Hoosiers.

“I’m proud of the way the guys responded from a tough loss, one that we know we squandered opportunities,” Crean said. “All we focused on was getting better, getting to this game.

“You get that (top) ranking back and then you lose a game, there are all sorts of thoughts and emotions go through your head. We knew we were headed into as physical a game as we’ve been in and in an environment as tough as we’ve been in.”

The call was answered, and in the process a statement was made.  

Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, scored 26 points but needed 20 shots to get there. Ohio State ended up getting Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross into double figures, too, but not until the game was decided. Oladipo, Zeller and Watford shot a combined 22 of 32.

“We didn’t play our type of defense today,” Craft said. “They made shots, and they made big ones. They got a lot of 3-pointers off. They got second chances, too. Offensive rebounds and putbacks kind of demoralize you.”

Indiana steadily demoralized the Buckeyes. The Hoosiers made 11 of their last 15 first-half shots, turning a two-point deficit into a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and, really, one that the Buckeyes didn’t threaten.

“They answered everything in a timely fashion against us,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Indiana shot 53 percent for the game, 59 percent in the second half, and stretched the lead to as much as 16 with 9:30 left in the game. The Hoosiers took very few bad shots and wasted few possessions or little energy.

The ball went to Zeller, and good things happened. Oladipo, per usual, was all over the court, contributing three offensive rebounds, three assists, two steals and making maybe the signature play of the game when he turned an Ohio State bobbled rebound into a momentum-changing monster dunk late in the first half.

The Hoosiers are averaging 83 points per game, playing better defense in every measurable category than they were a year ago and have the all-important mix of balance, weapons and experience. Their huge win here Sunday was just one, but it was a very impressive one.

Come Monday, it will likely be enough to keep them at No. 1. And as the games get bigger down the stretch, Indiana just might continue to be the team everyone else is trying to catch.