Image courtesy of IU Athletics |
“We’re just taking it one game at a time.”
For roughly the 1000th time in his Indiana career, Jordan Hulls downplayed the importance of a game by going to the tried and true ‘One game at a time’ cliche. A couple of reporters good-naturedly jabbed Hulls after the press conference following Indiana’s 70-55 win over Michigan State, asking how many times he had uttered that phrase when talking to the media.
“Quite a lot,” he said with a smile.
This time though was different than so many times before. Indiana’s dominant win – and it was a dominant win – marked the first time in the program’s illustrious history that the Hoosiers had knocked off not one, not two but three top-5 teams during regular season play. For a team – and in particular a group of seniors – that has been through so much, it’s great that no matter how the rest of the season unfolds, this group will get to leave with a nice piece of history under its belt.
A nice piece of history and maybe the most impressive win of the season.
“Every one of them have earned it,” Tom Crean said afterwards of his team. “There’s been nothing handed to them, there’s been nothing given to them … they’ve just continued to improve in the program. They’re living proof of what happens when you deal with adversity, lock yourself in the gym and just make yourself better.”
One needs look no further than Christian Watford to find an example of a player who has worked tirelessly to make himself better. The entire Indiana fan base and myself have gotten on him this season (as recently as this weekend, in my case, and not without cause) for his lack of consistent offensive production.
But even though Watford didn’t put forth an outstanding scoring performance, he snagged a career-high 14 boards and was totally disruptive as a defender. One knock on Watford has been his performance (or lack thereof) on the defensive end, but he showed no such shortcoming against the Spartans.
From the outset, he was tasked with taking MSU’s Keith Appling out of the game and judging by Appling’s scoreless 1st half performance, he can say “mission accomplished” on that front. In the 2nd half, Draymond Green – who had scored 16 of Michigan State’s 27 points – made two quick layups to cut the IU lead to only 10 and force a Hoosier timeout. At that point, he had scored 20 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including 20 of the Spartans’ last 22 points. We’ll let Watford describe what happened during the stoppage in play.
“I asked for (the defensive assignment),” he said. “I thought I was doing a good job on Appling, but once Draymond got going, I wanted to make things tough for him.”
He did just that, as Green scored a relatively quiet nine points on 2-6 shooting the rest of the way. That’s right; we now live in a world where Christian Watford can be counted on as a defensive stopper. He may not have shut down Green, but as Crean said afterward, “We made him work for his buckets.”
Watford’s performance was a part of a larger, team effort that saw many of his teammates step up, just as he did. Victor Oladipo scored 13 points on only six shots but eight free throw attempts, thanks to his multiple forays into the lane that the Spartans were powerless to stop.
Jordan Hulls looked more confident in his shot and reached double figures for the second straight game, Verdell Jones put up an efficient 12-point performance and shot 7 free throws of his own.
Oh, and Cody Zeller scored 18 points, more than doubling his offensive output from the first meeting of the season between these two teams.
“I learned a lot since the first game in the B1G,” he said. “I just tried to be active and watched film from the last game to pick up some little things.”
The sum of those contributions, of course, led to Tom Crean’s first win in eight tries over his good friend Tom Izzo.
“You know it’s not a personal thing,” Crean said. “He’s one of the best friends I’ll ever have and I’ve learned so much from him. But it’s a lot more about playing well against a great coach, a great coaching staff and a great program.”
In a game with this many storylines and so many points of significance, it takes a lot to overwhelm all of them, but despite wins over #1 Kentucky and #2 Ohio State earlier this year, this may have been the best the Hoosiers have played all season.
The Wildcats shot 56 percent from the field and would have likely won had they gotten anything from Terrence Jones and the Buckeyes struggled with the lack of depth that has led to their fall to the fringes of the top-10.
IU had their moments both nights, but never felt totally in control of either game until the very end.
On Tuesday night, Indiana took an 8-6 lead with 16:48 remaining in the first half and never relinquished that lead. The Hoosiers didn’t just win this game; they owned it from the start against a Final Four caliber opponent.
I’m still not sure that this Indiana team exists outside the confines of Assembly Hall, but that’s another question for another day. Right now, this is a team that just won its 23rd game – one more than it had won in the previous two seasons combined – and is playing its best basketball at just the right time.
The Hoosiers have been maddeningly inconsistent, and a loss at the hands of a Purdue squad still angry over IU’s early February win in Mackey Arena wouldn’t be surprising. More than at any other point this season though, Indiana’s success seems less like a mirage and more like a tangible entity.
Crean isn’t usually one to make proclamations and is responsible for the ‘one game at a time’ mentality evident in his players. But at the end of his press conference, he made a seemingly innocuous statement that bears weight because of the man making it. “I think this team has a lot of basketball left in it,” he said.
More than ever before, some cynics may be starting to believe him.
Jordan Hulls on the other hand, probably hasn’t looked that far ahead.