February 21, 2013
First, it was Duke's rise to No. 1 after their terrific run through the non-conference schedule.
Then, it was the cavalcade of suitors for the top spot — Louisville, Duke again, Kansas, even Florida tossed themselves in the mix — that took turns using a few first-place votes as motivation for a losing streak.
Next came Michigan, as their ascendence to the top of the Big Ten standings, mowing through the weaker part of their Big Ten schedule, was halted when the Wolverines were knocked off in Bloomington.
And finally, it was Michigan State, who one writer (ahem, me) called the best team in the Big Ten after their deconstruction of Michigan last Tuesday night.
Through it all, Indiana has been there, winning games, producing two players worthy of all-american consideration and, after a thrilling, 72-68 win over No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing, proving themselves quite worthy of their current No. 1 ranking while taking over sole possession of first-place in the Big Ten.
It hasn't quite happened how we all predicted it would.
Cody Zeller, the consensus Preseason Player of the Year, has been excellent. But he's also been overshadowed by Victor Oladipo, Indiana's hyper-active defensive stopper who just so happens to show out in the biggest games of the season. On Tuesday night, Oladipo finished with 19 points, nine boards and five steals while playing a major role in Keith Appling's devolvement into 'overwhelmed freshmen' mode and scoring the game-winning bucket — his 1,000th point as an Indiana Hoosier — on a tip-in with less than a minute left that gave the Hoosiers a 68-67 lead.
It's fitting, really.
Oladipo was never supposed to be this good. He'd spent the last two seasons making a name for himself as a good defender that threw down some great dunks and couldn't be trusted to shoot outside four feet. This season, he's not only become Indiana's best player and one of the team's emotional leaders, but he's developed a knack for making big plays in big moments and playing his best basketball in the games with the most on the line.
So of course, the guy that turned himself from a 20.8% three-point shooter into a 52.4% three-point shooter — a player who should have been complimented if he was even considered an NBA Draft afterthought that is now a virtual lock for the lottery — reached a scoring milestone on a hustle play that gave Indiana the lead for good in a game that puts them on the inside track for a Big Ten title.
And that's precisely where Indiana sits right now.
They have a one-game lead over Michigan State in the Big Ten standings that, essentially, doubles as a two-game lead when it comes to seeding. The Hoosiers swept the Spartans meaning they have the tie-breaker for the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament. And if things go as expected, it would mean that Indiana would avoid having to play Michigan or Michigan State until the Big Ten title game.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
What matters right now is that Indiana went on the road and beat the latest Flavor of the Week.
Any doubt about the Hoosiers that had crept into your mind after the Illinois, or after the Wisconsin loss, or the Butler loss, or at any point during the season can be put to rest.
It may not be how they drew it up, but who are we to argue with the results?
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.