Why Indiana Is Still the Team to Beat

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2012

I’m going to resist all temptation to make a “the Butler did it" joke, but Indiana’s undefeated season is officially over.

Walk-on Alex Barlow threw up a shot that hit just about every part of the rim before finally dropping to knock off the Hoosiers in overtime, 88-86. It was the first time in school history that the Bulldogs beat a top-ranked team.

It looked as if Indiana was going to survive a scare when freshman Yogi Ferrell drained a three-pointer with seconds left to tie it up. After all, most of Brad Stevens’ players had fouled out heading into the extra period.

Those of you who predicted the Hoosiers’ first loss would come at the hands of a walk-on from the Atlantic 10 should feel free to pat yourselves on the back. The rest of us are going to have to take a step back and digest this one a bit.

The key to the game was the mere fact that Butler hung around for the entire 40 minutes. It seemed as if Indiana was going to pull away a number of times, but the Bulldogs, a team more accustomed to playing the Cinderella role than most, always found a way to counterpunch.

That means Stevens’ bunch has wins over North Carolina, Marquette and Indiana under its belt already. Rest assured, Bulldogs fans; the selection committee is taking notes as we speak.

No disrespect to Butler, but the real story when the top-ranked team in the nation falls to an unranked opponent will always come from the losing locker room. Typically, the reaction falls somewhere between "that team was overrated" and "it was just one game; they’ll bounce back."

My take? Duke deserves to be No. 1 right now (the Blue Devils probably already deserved that based on their resume alone), but Indiana is still the team to beat when the NCAA tournament rolls around.

First of all, the Hoosiers squad that lost to Butler today is not quite the same one that will be taking the floor in March. Besides Christian Watford playing limited minutes with foul trouble, freshmen Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea were just ruled eligible to return after suspensions, and Tom Crean plans on easing them into the lineup over the course of the season.

That is some serious size that will be joining a frontcourt that already includes Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller. Remember, Butler out-rebounded the Hoosiers 37-31 this afternoon, something that probably would not have happened with an extra seven-foot body in the paint.

What’s more, freshman point guard Ferrell clearly needs a bit more seasoning. The talent is there (along with the cold-bloodedness, as we saw from that three-pointer to end regulation), but he is still making first-year mistakes.

He turned it over six times versus Butler and actually attempted more shots than any other Indiana player (with only three assists). With Zeller, Watford, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo on the roster, Crean probably would be much happier with Ferrell picking his spots to shoot and looking to set up his teammates.

That’s why games like this are great learning opportunities for the freshman floor general. By the time Aaron Craft and Trey Burke are blanketing him, he will be a better player because of this experience.

The development of Ferrell, Jurkin and Mosquera-Perea will only add to the impressive depth that Crean already has to operate with. The group of Watford, Sheehey, Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and, of course, Zeller is as talented as any coach can ask for.

That depth will come in handy when Indiana begins play in the treacherous Big Ten. Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois are all in the Top 10 in the country (along with IU), and Minnesota and Michigan State are both ranked as well.

That’s five of the best teams in the country that will be waiting to give the preseason No. 1 their best shot from January through the league tournament.

However, the impressive strength-of-schedule numbers that Indiana will accumulate during conference play will only serve to enhance the Hoosiers’ chances at winning the whole thing in March.

Crean’s team will be battle-tested when the brackets are released. Even if the Hoosiers are put in a difficult bracket, there’s no way it would be tougher than a run through Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Illinois and even Wisconsin.

This isn’t college football, and one loss doesn’t end a season or a team’s title hopes. By the end of the year, there will, in all likelihood, be zero undefeated teams. In fact, I would be surprised if there is a single team with only one loss by March.

Indiana will have an incredibly tough schedule under its belt, more depth than almost every other group in the country and arguably the best player in the nation in Zeller. Butler picked up a huge win today, but the Hoosiers will have their One Shining Moment at the end.