Tipoff: Indiana at Illinois, 7 p.m. Thursday
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BLOOMINGTON -- So where does Indiana go from here?
Well, to Illinois, for one.
To Ohio State, for another.
And that's just in the next week.
Now it gets tough, not that it wasn't before. The Big Ten is loaded as it's never been, and if you don't believe it, listen to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who's been around since officially retired NFL linebacker Ray Lewis consumed baby formula rather than -- reportedly -- deer antler extract.
“I'm debating that in my 30 years, has the league ever been better,” Izzo said. “I don't think there's any question the league is the best it's ever been top to bottom. That will lead to some incredible games every week.”
The Hoosiers already have been part of some of those games, which is one of the reasons why they're back atop the college basketball world with a 20-2 record, a Big Ten-leading 8-1 mark at the conference halfway point.
They had a heck of a week -- beating Michigan State and Michigan, which are potential Final Four teams, and crushing Purdue at Mackey Arena.
Now they get to do it again in a league rich in what-have-you-done-lately drama.
In the next few weeks Indiana plays at Illinois, at Ohio State, at Michigan State and at Minnesota. It hosts what should be a couple of breathers in Purdue and Nebraska, “should” being the operative word in a conference where anything can happen. March features Iowa and Ohio State at Assembly Hall, and then a potential winner-take-all regular season finale at Michigan.
And then there's the Big Ten tourney, this time back in Chicago.
And then there's the NCAA tourney.
The Hoosiers will be postseason ready as never before. They will have been tested at some of the nation's most intimidating arenas in front of some of the nastiest crowds imaginable against some of the best teams.
But it goes beyond that.
Indiana has two of the best college players on the planet in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. It has an all-Big Ten forward in Christian Watford. It's got one of the nation's best shooters in Jordan Hulls. It has a talented freshman point guard, Yogi Ferrell, who next year might be this year's Trey Burke of Michigan. It might have the Big Ten's best sixth man in Will Sheehey.
And if the bench isn't quite as deep as once projected because of injuries (Derek Elston, Maurice Creek, Austin Etherington) and suspensions (Hanner Perea, Peter Jurkin, Jeremy Hollowell), well, no team is invulnerable in this parity-is-everywhere era.
Let's look at Zeller, once a player-of-the-year favorite, now more of a long shot, although that can change with a big stretch run.
In the last two games he's averaged 19.0 points and 10.5 rebounds. For the season he averages 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 59.6 percent from the field. That tops last year's averages for scoring (15.6) and rebounding (6.6), so while he might not be the second coming of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, he's EXACTLY what IU needs to win a championship.
Case in point -- the way he beat a pair of Wolverines for a crunch-time loose ball rebound that resulted in a pair of Ferrell free throws that helped the Hoosiers hold on for a victory.
“Cody's loose-ball rebound late was unbelievable,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “That's why he's such a special player.”
Let's look at Oladipo, who keeps climbing in NBA draft projections to the point where he MIGHT be a lottery pick next summer -- if he gives up his senior year. In Sunday's 81-73 win over No. 1 Michigan he had 15 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals, and that doesn't do justice to his stifling defense.
"I don't know if I have seen one quicker or faster, more athletic player than Oladipo," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "It's tough to stay in front of him.
"Several times when we were making those runs, he would get to the basket. He may miss, but that's where Zeller was cleaning up."
Forget the December Butler loss. That was a much-needed learning tool directly attributed to a soft early schedule.
Forget the January Wisconsin defeat. That was a chance to boost half-court play and harden the resolve to never let another team dictate pace.
IU is way better now. Why? Because it has fully bought into the all-for-one, one-for-all mindset crucial for a championship run.
"I've got two brother-in-laws (John and Jim Harbaugh) in the Super Bowl," Crean said. "And their mantra for the team is, 'The team, the team, the team.'
"It was Bo Schembechler's. It was Jack Harbaugh's. It's those guys. We've got the same thing in the Cook Hall gym. To me, one thing I heard a long time ago was that the star of the team is the team."
So where does Indiana go from here?
Why not all the way?