Indiana Basketball: 5 Games That Proved Hoosiers Can Win NCAA Championship
There are those who would claim that the college basketball regular season does not matter. Those are usually people who lack the capacity to keep up with a game played more than once a week.
Every night it takes the floor, a college basketball team learns things about itself, some pleasant and some not so much. By late February, a team should have a realistic view of itself and what it can accomplish in the postseason.
The Indiana Hoosiers currently stand as the closest thing that college basketball has to a championship favorite. Each of IU's 27 games thus far have told it and its fans a lot about the team's character.
Whether or not the fans have picked up on the message depends on the listener. The team, however, knows it can bring home the ultimate prize.
Presented in chronological order, these five games tell us so.
November 20: IU 82, Georgetown 72
Takeaway: Yogi Ferrell's mental toughness
Indiana held a seven-point lead with 1:18 left at Madison Square Garden, and it was time for Georgetown to make with the desperation fouls. Twice, Markel Starks decided to hack the Hoosiers' freshman point guard and put him on the line to decide his fifth collegiate game.
The strategy proved successful, as Yogi Ferrell missed two of three foul shots in the final 46 seconds, allowing the Hoyas to tie the game through last-minute heroics by Otto Porter.
When the extra session began, the Hoosiers jumped out fast and clung to a five-point lead in the final two minutes. Slamming the door on Georgetown was none other than Ferrell.
Ferrell drained a pair of free throws and a three-point jumper to stretch the lead to 10 points inside the final minute of overtime. There would be no Hoya comeback this time.
After the game, IU coach Tom Crean said of Ferrell, "When he gets distracted or frustrated he gets out of it fast and that's what great players and definitely great point guards have." (h/t IUHoosiers.com)
The team had preseason expectations to grapple with, and as the point guard, Ferrell had a set of his own. Missing clutch free throws on national television against a quality opponent could have led to the freshman's confidence cratering. No such crash occurred.
Three months later, Ferrell's been hardened by Big Ten opponents and should not be a concern for the Hoosiers or their fans in March.
November 27: IU 83, North Carolina 59
Takeaway: IU's defensive ferocity
Indiana's defense was a preseason question mark. Would the Hoosiers be able to stop enough opponents to sustain a top ranking all season?
Through six games, IU had stopped most of its opponents, but of the bunch, Georgetown was the only one that could be considered a test. The Hoyas recorded 1.03 points per possession (PPP) in their loss to the Hoosiers in Brooklyn.
Indiana's meeting with North Carolina at Assembly Hall was considered a quality test at the time, and the Hoosiers passed with room to spare.
UNC missed 19 of its first 20 shots, and that 20th one was a tip-in that may have been knocked in by an IU player, anyway. At game's end, Tar Heel fans could only shake their heads at a .384 effective field-goal percentage and 0.8 PPP. North Dakota State and Georgia did better against the Hoosiers.
While North Carolina has proven to be unworthy of the No. 14 ranking it carried into Bloomington that night, the Tar Heels are still expected to be solidly in the NCAA tournament field.
While IU has not had such a stifling night against another likely tournament team, it still sits 14th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings of adjusted defensive efficiency, a tremendous improvement from last season's 64th.
December 31: IU 69, Iowa 65
Takeaway: Winning on hostile ground
Last season's IU team could only win three Big Ten road games, so the New Year's Eve meeting against an improving young Iowa team was a big deal, even for a Top Five team.
Iowa stayed in the game until the bitter end, but in the final minutes, Indiana saw off multiple possessions that could have tied the game. Victor Oladipo began his run of right-place-right-time moments by collecting a Cody Zeller air ball and scoring a layup to give IU a five-point lead. Iowa never got closer than three.
Most impressively, the Hoosiers overcame Jordan Hulls missing all 10 of his shots, primarily due to him replacing the points with six assists, two steals and no turnovers.
After that victory, Indiana has rolled to a 6-1 conference road record, including wins at Ohio State and Michigan State. It may not be what Sinatra meant when he sang "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," but wins at Carver-Hawkeye, the Schottenstein and the Breslin should make any other venue feel homey by comparison.
Well, except the other Assembly Hall, but more on that in a moment.
February 7: Illinois 74, IU 72
Takeaway: A reminder to finish the game
"Really? A loss proves a team can win a national title? You're a moron."
Yes, I'm trolling myself so we can get it out of the way. Now, read me out.
A 15-3 run over the game's final 4:07 leading to a buzzer-beating layup is a difficult way for any team to lose. That goes double for one that just regained its No. 1 ranking with a narrow win over the previous team to hold that spot.
Tom Crean said after the Illinois game, "When you get a chance to put somebody away you've got to put them away, and we didn't do it the other night with Michigan...we had numerous opportunities in that game to put them away and we didn't do it...and we didn't do it tonight." (h/t IUHoosiers.com)
After that painful loss, the Hoosiers gave no quarter to Ohio State when leading in the final minutes and outfought Michigan State to the buzzer.
The reminder to stay focused for 40 minutes and get Cody Zeller more than six shots is one that anyone affiliated with IU basketball would prefer to see in early February than late March. Don't expect the Hoosiers to take a foot off the throttle when the games matter most.
February 19: IU 72, Michigan State 68
Takeaway: Not only finishing, but finishing on the road
Indiana trailed by four with 1:38 left in Michigan State's house, then Victor Oladipo went to work. The junior swingman cemented his Big Ten player of the year credentials, if not his national bona fides, by scoring the Hoosiers' final six points and pulling two critical rebounds in the final 43 seconds.
All of that was accomplished on an injured ankle that the player himself described as 85 to 95 percent healthy.
Between Oladipo's ankle, malfunctioning clocks, erratic officiating and (ahem) physical play from the Spartans, the mitigating factors were lining up against Indiana. Still, the team's veterans, particularly Oladipo and Christian Watford, made the needed plays to finish off a skilled, capable opponent.
Barring unforeseeable calamity, it's unlikely that IU will face quite as many odd occurrences in a single evening. Shrugging all of it off and rallying to take down a Top Five opponent is the stuff of champions.
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.