It’s easy for Tom Crean to gush about his star, Victor Oladipo. Coaches are expected to tout their players, especially those that are as exceptionally capable as the 6’5’’ junior.
“His maturity and his level of toughness, it went up another notch, because there’s no way he felt good and there’s no way he had the normal conditioning that he has,“ Crean said to the Indianapolis Star after Tuesday night’s game.
But the fact that Spartans coach Tom Izzo, whose team had lost to Indiana at home for the first time since 1991, was able to lavish such praise was far more significant.
“The play that was the killer was the tip-in,” Izzo said to the Indianapolis Star, referring to Oladipo’s follow-up to give the Hoosiers a 68-67 lead with :47 seconds left. “What happened is he’s got incredible heart and just did what he does.”
On top of willing the Hoosiers to a monumental road victory, Izzo called Oladipo the Big Ten’s “MVP.”
Izzo may have been understating the potential hardware in Oladipo's future. Following last night's game, he's now the front-runner for the National Player of the Year. So says CBS' Gary Parrish and ESPN's Andy Katz.
One game doesn't make a season, but Oladipo's been hovering in the conversation throughout the past two months.
Just ask ESPN's Dan Dakich (via InsidetheHall):
Dakich: "I get tired of people saying now Oladipo has moved into the national player of the year race. What the hell you been looking at?"— Alex Bozich (@insidethehall) February 20, 2013
But against the league's second-best team, in their house, with a chance to break the tie atop the conference standings, Oladipo's performance put him over the top. He flew through the lane to swat a Michigan State layup early on, intercepted numerous timely passes and constantly tried to defer to his teammates on fast breaks, yet the ball seemed to wind up in his hands every time.
You know the scariest part? He wasn’t even fully healthy on Tuesday. Wasn’t even close, according to Crean.
Playing three days removed from rolling his ankle in the win over Purdue, Oladipo was a terror in the passing lanes, was absurdly efficient from the field and found space to corral a game-high nine rebounds, none more important than the tip-in.
Yet his ultra-efficient night (19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, five steals) wasn’t much different than what he’s done all season for the top-ranked Hoosiers.
He’s seventh in the country with a 63.9 percent field-goal percentage and is the only guard ranked in the top 25 in terms of shooting percentage—slots usually reserved for big men who play closer to the rim. But Oladipo doesn’t shy away from three-pointers when given space, either. He’s 23-of-45 on the season.
At times during Tuesday night’s telecast, ESPN’s commentators Dick Vitale and Magic Johnson were prone to hyperbole, at one point comparing Oladipo to a “mini-MJ” or LeBron. But it was another comparison that was perhaps more prescient.
Johnson said Oladipo reminded him of James’ teammate, Dwyane Wade, a protégé of Crean at Marquette. This comparison, while admittedly lofty, is much more suitable for Oladipo, who’s at his best when he’s slashing to the rim off the bounce and using his superior athleticism to find space.
On the defensive end, Oladipo diminished Spartans forward Branden Dawson into an insignificant role, forcing three turnovers and holding him to just eight points and four rebounds. Oladipo was just adding to his Big Ten-leading 2.4 steals per game, a half theft more than any other player in the league.
The three other most-buzzed-about candidates are Duke’s Mason Plumlee, Michigan’s Trey Burke and Creighton’s Doug McDermott, but all three have recently seen their résumés chipped.
Plumlee was a no-show in the Blue Devils’ recent loss to Maryland, tallying just four points and three rebounds. Burke has been consistently good, shining as the rest of his team has faded, but his stock is down due to the Wolverines’ recent slide.
Ironically, McDermott, whom Magic Johnson referred to as a “poor man’s Larry Bird” on Tuesday night, saw his candidacy stumble as his Blue Jays have lost three of their last five games, the first coming against Bird’s alma mater, Indiana State.
The difference with Oladipo is his versatility, and while his 14 points per game and six rebounds seem rather pedestrian, it’s the havoc he induces on the defensive end which makes him unique.
"There may be better pure defenders in college basketball and there may be more skilled scorers and there may be more dominating rebounders, but no player combines all of those skills into a single package the way Oladipo has," ESPN's Eamonn Brennan wrote.
His steal rate (five percent) is 18th in the country while his block percentage (three) is nationally ranked as well, both via KenPomeroy. Even more infuriating for opposing coaches is his tenacity on the offensive glass, which Izzo can well attest (his 2.6 per game rank fourth in the Big Ten).
Oladipo shouldn’t get bogged down with a chance at winning either the Wooden or the Naismith Award. He has already overshadowed his 7’0’’ teammate, and his team has positioned itself for the No. 1 seed in the tournament, which should be his top priority.
Don't expect him to fixate or postulate on the potential award. Crean and Izzo can do that for him.