BLOOMINGTON -- For Indiana’s suddenly bruised Hoosiers, the choice is simple entering today’s game at No. 10 Ohio State:
1) Rise to the challenge.
Let’s just say submitting isn’t part of the game plan.
“We have to do what we’ve always done,” guard Jordan Hulls said. “Get better in practice, learn from this and go from there.”
For three days last week, IU had returned to the undisputed basketball mountaintop. It was back at No. 1 and in sole possession of the Big Ten lead. Even better, for most of its Thursday game at Illinois, it had a double-digit lead.
The troubles that had stunned previous No. 1 teams -- Duke (twice), Louisville and Michigan -- were apparently not a problem.
Until they were.
Now the Hoosiers (20-3 overall) need a victory today to match Michigan State’s 9-2 Big Ten record.
IU’s lack of a killer instinct, which briefly surfaced against Michigan and Minnesota, turned into full-fledged meltdown at Illinois.
“If we want to be a great team,” Hulls said, “we have to put teams away.”
IU’s challenge goes beyond that, coach Tom Crean said.
“This team has got to continue to mature, which I think they will,” he said. “You’ve got to stay committed to what gets you in that position. It’s your communication, your spacing and movement on offensive, your ability to not get so locked into your man that you leave somebody on an island, but you can’t over-help.”
The Hoosiers’ commitment faces a major Ohio State challenge. The Buckeyes (17-5 overall, 7-3 in the Big Ten) have won seven of the last eight meetings. They’ve won six of the last seven meetings at Value City Arena. IU last won there in 2008.
One great Big Ten debate is who is the best defender, IU’s Victor Oladipo or Ohio State’s Aaron Craft.
If you base it on steals, Oladipo has the edge. He has a Big Ten-leading 54. Craft is third with 43.
But defense is more than steals. It includes how well you prevent the guy you’re guarding from scoring, how well you help, how well you shut down dribble penetration, how many turnovers you force, and more.
Craft was last year’s Big Ten defensive player of the year. His technique is so good Buckeyes video coordinator Greg Paulus is constantly sending out tapes. He’s also an academic All-American with a goal of becoming a doctor once basketball is over.
“He’s a very special young man, from the way he plays to the way he attends to his academics,” Matta said. “It’s something that is important to him. He sees beyond basketball. I’m very proud of all his achievements.”
Matta has called Craft the nation’s best defender, although when asked to compare Craft to Oladipo, he turned diplomatic.
“I know (Oladipo) is an amazing player. He’s a special player, as well as Aaron.”
Beyond defense, Craft ranks among the Big Ten’s best in free throw shooting (tied with Christian Watford for second at 81.7 percent), assists (tied with Yogi Ferrell for second at 4.5) and assist-to-turnover ratio (fifth). He’s one of 12 finalists for the Cousy Award, given annually to the nation’s best point guard.
Craft is a big reason why the Buckeyes rank second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (58.1 points allowed) and field goal percentage defense (38.3 percent).
Ohio State’s offensive catalyst remains forward Deshaun Thomas. The former Bishop Luers standout and Indiana Mr. Basketball leads the Big Ten in scoring (19.9 points) and free throw shooting (82.3 percent). He ranks among the Big Ten leaders in rebounds (6.1), three-point shooting (40.0 percent) and three-point baskets made (52).
“Deshaun is playing at a high level,” Matta said. “The thing I’m most proud of him is how he has evolved as a player from where he started to where he is today. I love the way he’s playing on both ends of the floor.”
Thomas is a candidate for the Oscar Robertson Award, given annually to the nation’s top player.
“He’s a scorer,” Crean said. “He’s got a scorer’s mentality. He’s big. He gets it off extremely quick. He can play at the post. He’s extremely dangerous in the mid-post area. In the pick-and-pop, driving and 3-point shooting game. He’s just an all-around scorer.”
The only other Buckeye to average in double figures is guard Lenzelle Smith (10.5 points).
“They’re as physically tough defensively as any team we will have faced to this point, and especially at home,” Crean said. ‘They’re a spurt team. They’re a big run team. They start really fast at home a lot of times. We’ve got to weather those storms.
“Their crowd is fantastic, they’re right there on top of you. It will be an unbelievable atmosphere, and we’ve just gotta stay truly committed to what’s important. You can’t get caught up in the surroundings as much as you stay true to the game plan inside of it. Excellent on the defensive end, they can score in a lot of different ways.”