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COLUMN

Indiana shows nobody does it better

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Tipoff: Indiana vs. Illinois/Minnesota, Big Ten, noon, Friday
RADIO: 1250-AM
TV: ESPN

Online: For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Hoosiers vie for NCAA No. 1 seed

Monday, March 11, 2013 - 12:28 am

ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- This is why you play: for these moments, when doubt is everywhere, improbability looms and a top-10 opponent pushes you to the brink.

And then you push back.

This is why you cry -- when hard work is rewarded and victory is achieved. When an outright championship is earned and, perhaps, a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed is secured.

We'll get to that.

Can you believe Indiana's 72-71 heart-in-your-throat victory at Michigan Sunday night?

Can you?

The team that couldn't lose at home did. The team questioned for its toughness proved its mettle.

So here's an emotional coach Tom Crean hugging an emotional guard Victor Oladipo for all he's worth on an illuminated Crisler Arena court.

“It just hits you at some point,” Crean said. “When it did it for me was when I did see Victor. When I saw how emotional he was. I was good till I looked at him.”

Here's a steely tough Cody Zeller, criticized at times for perceived lack of toughness and resolve, muscling and finessing his way for the game's final six points to give him a 25-point, 10-rebound night.

Here's the relentless Oladipo, capping an outstanding season with, perhaps, a Big Ten MVP-winning performance, although you won't hear it from him because he's too busy touting Zeller.

“I've been saying all year long Cody should be player of the year. If you guys (the media) don't give it to him, no disrespect, but there's something wrong with you all.”

For the record, Oladipo totaled 14 points, a career-high 13 rebounds (three more than he'd ever done before), three assists, one highlight block, a steal and suffocating defense against one of the nation's most dynamic players, Michigan's Trey Burke.

That performance, IU athletic director Fred Glass said, should clinch conference player of the year honors.

Burke, Oladipo's biggest player-of-the-year challenger, had 20 points, four assists, four turnovers and three steals. But with two chances in the final 50 seconds to seal a Wolverine victory, he came up empty.

All of that was just a sideshow to the main event, which was Indiana finishing with a 14-4 Big Ten record, one game ahead of Ohio State and Michigan State, for its first outright title since 1993. Its 26-5 overall record positions it for a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed no matter what happens in this week's Big Ten tourney in Chicago.

For Glass, that No. 1 seed is a no brainer.

“We took care of a lot of business,” Glass said. “We're the best team in the best conference.”

Some project as many as seven teams have a shot at the four No. 1 seeds. Crean has no doubt where his Hoosiers belong.

“I think you win this league and it's the best league in the country, yes, I would say so,” he said about earning a No. 1 seed.” You win this league, you get that honor. You win this league outright and everything that has gone on in the league this season, I do.”

Crean even made a No. 1 pitch for Michigan, which is 25-6 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten. In other words, it's ranked No. 7 nationally, but will be a No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tourney.

“I don't think (Michigan) is far from it,” he said.

As far as Sunday's win, here's a condensed version: In a back-and-forth game (14 lead changes, three ties) Indiana trailed 71-66 with 52 seconds left. It had given up five straight points from a 66-66 tie thanks to three straight botched offensive possessions. The Wolverines, 17-0 at Crisler Arena this season and 32-1 at home over the past two seasons, were poised to close out the victory and earn a share of the Big Ten championship.

And then, two things happened:

Michigan blinked.

Indiana capitalized.

The Wolverines' Tim Hardaway and Burke both missed the front end of bonuses. Zeller scored those six straight points, four on field goals, two from the free throw line, in 39 seconds.

And then, with the clock ticking up 10 seconds, Burke drove for an off-balance layup (he got free when Oladipo got caught in a high ball screen) and missed. Teammate Jordan Morgan tipped the miss and the ball bounced four times on the rim, then rolled on it, before falling away.

"It seemed like it was 2 1/2, 3 hours," Oladipo said with a weary smile when asked how long that last shot hung on the rim.

After that, a Hoosier celebration.

For those who question Crean's coaching, if they believe he's strong on recruiting and pregame preparation, but light on in-game adjustments, get a good dose of reality. In the final 52 seconds, with everything on the line, with a hostile crowd at fever pitch doing everything it could to will the Wolverines to victory, the Hoosiers executed flawlessly.

That's good coaching.

And for those who wonder if Crean is tough enough, consider the brief confrontation he had with Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer after the game. Meyer is a former IU assistant coach under Kelvin Sampson.

"It's a heated game," Crean said. "It's a heated game."

So suddenly hot again IU gets the winner between Illinois (21-11) and Minnesota (20-11) in Friday's Big Ten tourney quarterfinals. The Hoosiers are 1-1 against Minnesota this season, 0-1 against Illinois.

But that's a topic for another day. For this day, consider this:

When it comes to Indiana and the Big Ten this season, nobody does it better.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.