Photo courtesy of IU Athletics |
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The hardest thing in sports can be trying to figure out what really is a statement game.
Does it come against an annual rival, regardless of record, or during the heat of conference play?
For the No. 18 Indiana Hoosiers, while Tuesday nightâ€™s 70-55 victory over the No. 5 Michigan State Spartans will not define its season, but it surely will give these Hoosiers the strength to complete it.
With a win Sunday against archrival Purdue (19-10), the Hoosiers (23-7) will secure sole possession of fifth place in the Big Ten, renowned as 2012′s toughest conference, and will have completed the single biggest turnaround of any BCS school this year.
Not to mention it marks the first time in the history of Old IU that an Indiana team has beaten three opponents ranked in the top-five during the regular season.
“That’s remarkable considering where we have been,” Tom Crean said. “They’ve just continued to improve the program and they’re living proof of what happens when you persevere and you deal with adversity and you lock yourself in the gym and you just make yourself better.
“Our team is getting better and I think it was proven again tonight.”
Of course, while the Hoosiers have proven to be resilient on the road at times, it is worth noting all three of these wins have come within the safe confines of Assembly Hall.
But to these Hoosiers and their fans, the likes of who, what, when, where and why do not matter. Regardless, the joy amid Assembly Hall will be deafening.
Even before Tuesday night’s game, similar to December 9, against Kentucky, Assembly Hall was ludicrously loud.
To those who have never attended a game, the place is built for sound, anyhow, with the bleachers stacked atop each other so close to the court and then climbing high into the rafters towering over the game.
This is not today’s standard multi-faceted facility. Its sole purpose is basketball: to fuel the echoes, the clever, raucous chants, the five championship banners overhanging the south basket and all that.
It infects everything, everyone. It inspires Indiana players to lift their games higher than they ever have.
“Unbelievable,” Crean described it as. “The bedlam of this place and you could sense it building all day with how the students were lined up, just phenomenal.”
Junior forward Christian Watford wasn’t at his best offensively tonight — just 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting — but the mark of good players is delivering on off nights.
The electricity among the 17,280 packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands demanded he deliver.
With 6:02 to play and the Hoosiers clinging to a 56-49 lead, after his own offensive rebound, Watford stifled Michigan State’s comeback with a 3-pointer that banked in off the glass from the left wing.
“That’s exactly how I drew it up,” Watford said. “No, I can’t call it though it just banked in for me though.”
Some moments, however, are more symbolic than significant, and for Watford, his hunger on the boards – a career high 14 rebounds – and his leading defensive effort on MSU guard Keith Appling and likely All-American Draymond Green represented more than one shot ever could.
“The job Christian Watford did defensively is where I would start with talking about him,” Crean said. “Obviously he had a double-double, but the eight deflections, the job he did on Keith Appling and then the job of going in to Draymond Green, I thought that was big.”
Watford was not the only one infected by Assembly Hall.
Cody Zeller was able to exact revenge on a Michigan State frontcourt that bludgeoned him in East Lansing, which politely welcomed him to the Big Ten. Zeller finished with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, and was once again the Hoosiers go-to scorer when they needed a bucket most.
With 3:17 to play and MSU gasping for air down 64-52, Zeller slipped around his man to steal a Keith Appling pass and take it the length of the court for a thunderous slam, bifurcating the Spartans armor that has proven so strong in half.
“I learned a lot since the first game in the B1G,” Zeller said. “I just tried to be active and watched film from the last game to pick up some little things.”
Like Watford’s clutch gene and Zeller’s offensive dominance, Victor Oladipo’s enthusiasm was resurrected, a trait that ripples through these Hoosiers when he comes to life.
Oladipo assertively carried the load offensively for the Hoosiers early, attacking the rim with a relentless bent, forcing himself to the free-throw line and the Spartans frontcourt into foul trouble.
And it was Oladipo’s persistent and physical defense that forced Green off to a slow start, which allowed the Hoosiers to get off to an early 18-8 lead, a lead they would not relinquish.
“When Vic gets his energy going defensively it helps the team,” Crean said. “It certainly helps him and I think that was a big part of that and if you’re going to guard Draymond Green you’re going to be locked in right away and he was.”
When Green got going — finishing with 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting and at one point scoring 20-of-22 for the Spartans — it was Watford who switched assignments and helped the Hoosiers regain control.
“I asked for it,” Watford said. “I thought I was doing a good job on Appling, but once Draymond got going, I wanted to make things tough for him.”
Everyone is excited in Bloomington, as they should be. The Hoosiers have improved from six, to 10, to 12, to 23 wins and counting.
“Playing in an atmosphere like this helps us in these situations. Tonight didn’t get real close in the end like it did in the other two games,” Verdell Jones said. “Playing against these top-tier teams has really helped prepare us.”
IU will tip-off its season finale Sunday night against Purdue, which will also mark the last time these Hoosiers will play within the safeguards of Assembly Hall.
Ready or not, the road is certainly going to get tougher from here.