Image courtesy of Comcast Sports Net
What can’t these guys do?
After Indiana’s Cody Zeller was called for an offensive foul that turned the ball over once again to the VCU Rams with little more than two minutes remaining, the Hoosiers had placed themselves squarely behind the 8-ball. They trailed 61-56 with 2:17 remaining and a made basket by VCU would have made it a three-possession game with less than two minutes to go. It was gut-check time in every sense of the word.
Dan Bonner, the color commentator for the TBS broadcast, said as much at the beginning of the Rams’ next offensive possession – indicating that if Indiana failed to come up with a stop on that possession that the Hoosiers may as well pack it in and admit defeat. When Troy Daniels’ potential dagger for VCU went begging, Bonner said Indiana’s offensive possession had just as much gravity – that if they didn’t score on that trip down, they could just about forget about a win. Within 20 seconds, Cody Zeller had made a superlative move to the basket and drawn two free throws that he would convert. Just like that, it was anybody’s ballgame.
When asking Tom Crean about traits he values in his team, toughness, grit and resolve always end up bubbling their way to the top, and while the sequence detailed above was probably the most impressive and significant instance, it wasn’t nearly the only one.
Christian Watford deserves a lion’s share of the credit – perhaps appropriate considering his ridiculous woodsman’s beard – as the Hoosiers surely couldn’t have won this game without him. Watford’s 16 point and 5 rebound stat line appears impressive enough, but becomes even more so when considering the circumstances surrounding his numbers. The Rams held a 42-33 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the first half when Watford scored half of his night’s total on a personal 8-0 run, helping the Hoosiers head to the locker room trailing by only one. With his team against the ropes, it was Watford who answered the bell.
Then again, maybe it’s Cody Zeller that Hoosier Nation should be flocking to thank. Zeller finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds – 11 boards coming after halftime – and when IU’s offense stalled down the stretch, it was placed upon Cody Zeller’s shoulders. The Hoosier guards found him in the middle of the VCU trap multiple times and he manufactured points at the rim and at the line when no one else could. On the very first offensive possession after being called for an offensive foul, he drove into the lane with the same aggression that had gotten him whistled on the last possession, and was this time rewarded with a pair of free throws. The usually reliable Zeller had gone 2-4 in his previous two trips to the charity stripe, but the freshman stepped to the line and calmly put two points in the bank for Indiana and made it a one-possession game.
Maybe it was “Sheeladipo”, the Hoosier fanbase’s nickname for the sophomore duo of Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo – perhaps even more fitting than usual, considering how closely the pair was tied in the game’s end result. Oladipo struggled at times against the relentless Ram pressure (he finished with five turnovers), but he also created for his teammates, threw down a characteristically rim-rattling dunk, and converted on the second biggest play of the night – a driving and-1 layup/free throw to knot the score at 61. He looked to be driving for the game-winning layup, when a great defensive play by VCU resulted in a blocked shot – straight into the waiting hands of Will Sheehey, who calmly knocked down a 15-foot jumper to give IU a two-point lead.
It was fitting that Sheehey would see such a chance off a play not even designed for him. He had spent much of the game performing efficiently, but not in a standout manner. Before that shot hit the bottom of the net, his most memorable moment of the game had been a play where he inadvertently caught a defender with an elbow and was called for a flagrant foul, which swung momentum back to the Rams. Despite spending much of the game operating below the radar, Sheehey was ready for his moment in the spotlight and – according to him – smiled broadly before the shot had left his hands. In retrospect, that smile makes sense, as does the performance of every one of his teammates – mentioned above or not. That smile comes back to the toughness and resolve that brings confidence in one’s ability. Crean remarked after the game that the resolve and determination that he saw in his team was “scary”. And why wouldn’t it be, after all the work this team has put in to get where they are now?
Look at the nearly three full seasons of work Watford has put in to go from a lanky, no-defense tweener to a player who his coach trusts to guard the opposing point guard and tied for the team lead in scoring against VCU.
Look at the time that Cody Zeller spent in the weight room to put 20 pounds of mostly muscle on his seven-foot frame; time that has given him the strength to carry his team late in games.
Look to Sheehey and Oladipo’s key cards that they use for access to Cook Hall, the Indiana basketball practice facility. Key cards that – according to Tom Crean – were worn out from a summer of intensive use.
When Sheehey caught that deflection, he couldn’t help but smile because the hours of time that he spent on a practice court last summer helped put that shot right in his sweet spot. Though he had never been in that situation, his countless hours of preparation had forged him perfectly for that moment.
The Hoosiers’ success may not continue past Saturday’s win – the pissed-off, powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats will be waiting in Atlanta – but getting this far is an accomplishment in itself. As Zach Osterman of Inside Indiana wrote, this team has given fans another week to enjoy the best college basketball Bloomington’s seen in a decade. It’s truly been a remarkable season built on mental fortitude and born from the mountains of losses over the past three years. Those losses and countless hours of practice have allowed these guys to experience the Sweet Sixteen, something no Indiana team since the 2002 National Championship contenders can say.
So savor this week, Hoosier fans, and dare to dream. If there’s a team that warrants it, it’s this one.