BLOOMINGTON — So how good is Victor Oladipo? What more can this Indiana junior guard do now that he has supplanted Cody Zeller as Indiana’s best player and propelled the No. 7 Hoosiers to the top of the Big Ten?
“There are a lot of things,” he said. “Impact the game at both ends of the floor at a high level. That sums it up.”
How’s this for a summary – a season-high 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Seven rebounds, a career-high six steals, three blocks and enough emotional energy to power a city. He was, in every way, the biggest catalyst in Sunday’s nationally televised 75-70 victory over Michigan State that pushed Indiana into a Big Ten first-place tie with Michigan.
“He plays so hard,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s the Ray Lewis of college basketball.”
Case in point – in the game’s opening seconds, Oladipo stripped Branden Dawson of the ball and drove for a dunk against a team that had roared to the Big Ten forefront in part because it didn’t turn the ball over. That set a tone that never wavered against Michigan State surges.
“My freshman year I wanted to, but I wasn’t capable,” Oladipo said of his do-everything prowess. “My sophomore year I started to. Now I’ve got to bring it every night, on both ends of the floor, so my team can win.
“I’ve got to do it every night.”
In so many ways, Oladipo does. He’s scored in double figures in 17 of his last 18 games, and the one game he didn’t, at Northwestern, he totaled a game-high five assists against one turnover. He averages 13.9 points and 5.9 rebounds. He leads the Big Ten in shooting (66.0 percent) and would lead in three-point shooting (55.2 percent), but he hasn’t shot enough to qualify.
Oladipo does this while guarding the conference’s most formidable scorers. His 49 steals are nine more than anyone else in the Big Ten has, but Indiana coach Tom Crean goes beyond that to measure defensive activity.
“Victor did something in the first half I’ve never been a part of in coaching – he had 15 deflections in the first half,” Crean said.
Oladipo finished with 22 deflections and enough harassment to make anyone dread facing him.
“He’s a great example of why we always watch a lot of film, and he watches that much more,” Crean said. “He’s getting a knowledge base to go with his instinct, talent and athleticism. The more he does that, the better he’s going to be.
“Guys like that learn your instincts can’t get better without that knowledge. That’s part of taking the next step."
Sunday’s next step included disrupting Michigan State’s offense enough to produce the fast-break opportunities IU seeks. It had 14 fast-break points, a big reason why it shot 60.7 percent from the field in the first half, 50.9 percent for the game. It forced 19 turnovers, nine more than the Spartans had averaged during their six-game winning streak.
“That was just being aggressive on defense,” Oladipo said.” Nobody has really pressured them on defense all year long. We did a good job of that.”
Oladipo directed praise to freshman guard Yogi Ferrell, who shut down Michigan State point guard Keith Appling. The junior had three points, no assists and four turnovers before fouling out.
“Yogi set the tone on Appling,” Oladipo said. “He kind of got him frustrated a little bit. We did a great job of that, especially at the end of games. We have to keep doing that.”
Michigan State stayed in the game because of its surprising three-point shooting. It had a season-high 11 three-pointers – five by freshman Gary Harris – while going 11-for-23.
The biggest Spartan surprise was 6-10 center Adreian Payne. He went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc to equal the number of three-point baskets he’d made all season. He finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.
Harris, last year’s Indiana Mr. Basketball, totaled 21 points.
IU won despite a second straight poor offensive showing by Zeller. The Hoosiers’ leading scorer had nine points (seven below his average) on 2-for-7 shooting. In his last two games, he’s totaled 11 points on 2-for-11 shooting. He did grab a combined 14 rebounds in those two games.
Still, he had a huge drive for a layup late in Sunday’s game, then followed by drawing a charging foul on Payne to help IU hold on.
As a result, Indiana tied Michigan for the Big Ten lead with 6-1 records. The Hoosiers are 18-2 overall. Michigan State is 6-2 and 17-4.
“We need to get tougher mentally,” Izzo said. “Down the stretch we were sucking air, and that caused us not to jam or step up or switch.
“Indiana’s a good team. I still think, top to bottom, they’re the best team because of depth.”
The Hoosiers attacked from the opening tip to build leads as large as nine before Michigan State rallied. Payne’s reverse dunk forged a 38-38 tie before Ferrell and Will Sheehey hit three-pointers to give IU a 44-38 halftime lead.
Harris hit a pair of early three-pointers to keep Michigan State within range early in the second half.
That’s where it stayed. Oladipo and Harris traded big baskets and big plays. IU had the lead, but not control, even after Appling fouled out.
With less than 90 seconds remaining, Zeller got the ball outside and drove for a layup to put IU ahead 74-70. With 14.3 seconds left, Payne drove for a layup, but Zeller stepped in to take the charge, and wipe out the basket.
The Hoosiers would hold on, and no one doubted who got the bulk of the credit.
“Victor made a tremendous difference from the start of the game,” Crean said.
“We ask him to do a lot and guard a lot of different people. If you’re not smart, cerebral, athletic and quick with the hands, it won’t matter. He’s been very good. Friday was maybe as good a practice as he’s had here, and he hasn’t had many bad ones.”