Indiana vs. Michigan State: Finally, a True No. 1 Team Survives
It's been a goofy season in college basketball, to say the least. Since just before New Year's, holding the No. 1 ranking has been like appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated: an event to be celebrated by friends and family, but feared by the subjects themselves.
Indiana. Duke. Louisville. Duke again. Michigan.
Each took the lofty ranking and the attendant expectations into games against admittedly strong opponents, but none came out unscathed.
Indiana stared down an elite opponent of its own Tuesday night, meeting the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans in MSU's own Breslin Center and escaping with a 72-68 victory.
Pulling a win out of this particular fire speaks as much to what Indiana doesn't have as what it does.
There's a freshman point guard much more battle-hardened than what the Hoosiers' Yogi Ferrell was when he turned over the ball six times against Butler.
There are no injury issues, a la Duke's loss of Ryan Kelly.
There's no player with a complete lack of fear and/or common sense alternating between winning and losing games, like Louisville's Russ Smith.
The IU lineup isn't like Michigan's, requiring a host of freshmen to sustain veteran-level play all season in, arguably, the nation's most grueling conference.
So, is there a team out there better equipped to survive the grind of the next six weeks? If there is one, it's hard to find, but even Indiana's sailing across oceans its players have never charted.
Remember, last season's Hoosier team was unranked until Christian Watford's miracle shot toppled Kentucky. A brief sojourn into the Top 10 was greeted with a three-game losing streak, and the team made only one more token appearance in the Top 15.
So, last season's Sweet 16 trip was largely financed with house money, and there was none of the pressure that has greeted this year's team since being anointed in nearly every preseason ranking out there.
Indiana has experienced hands in upperclassmen Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo, but these guys haven't entered an NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, facing Final Four-or-bust expectations.
Tuesday night's win in East Lansing had a Final Four atmosphere, including technical problems that we must hope aren't becoming a habit after the Super Bowl blackout. IU's survival at the Breslin bodes well for the future, but as we've seen all season, no team can afford a moment of overconfidence.
After all, No. 1 is still a giant bull's-eye, and some of the hunters are packing heavy weapons. Indiana's just established itself as the biggest bear in the woods this hunting season.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron, home of the exclusive Back Iron Index and Bracketometry, telling us which teams SHOULD be in the NCAA tournament come March.
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