Tipoff: Indiana vs. Illinois/Minnesota, Big Ten tourney, noon, Friday
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BLOOMINGTON -- Here is Victor Oladipo, a couple of days removed from Indiana's rally-for-the-ages win at Michigan, aiming for a Big Ten tourney adventure the program has never seen, basking in the knowledge that, if he's not the Big Ten's best player, he just won an award saying he's No. 1 in the nation.
“It's an amazing feeling,” he says about being named The Sporting News' national player of the year. “It's a blessing. I couldn't have done it without my teammates. I appreciate the award and we're looking forward to the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”
The numbers show Oladipo, a junior guard, led the Big Ten in steals (2.2 a game) and shooting (61.4 percent). He averaged 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. He shot 46.4 percent from three-point range. He had 26 blocks.
Oh, yes. He was the Big Ten defensive player of the year and made The Sporting News first team All-America.
So what does he think about all these honors?
“I think about getting in the gym and working on my game,” he says. “That's the first thing that came into my head -- I just want to get better.
“It's nice to be recognized, but I couldn't be here without teammates. I feel like I can get better in so many areas.
“The past few games before Michigan I kind of lost the target. Coach (Tom) Crean and this coaching staff and my teammates helped me find what I was missing. I can't lose that, especially if we want to be successful in March.”
A pause. A smile.
For the record, the only way to play in April is to reach the Final Four, which is April 6 in Atlanta.
First, though, there's the Big Ten tourney at Chicago's United Center. For the first time in Crean's five-year era, the Hoosiers (26-5) have a first-round bye. They don't play until Friday's quarterfinals, when they'll face today's winner between Illinois (21-11) and Minnesota (20-11).
For the first time in school history, IU is seeded No. 1. The top seed has won this 16-year-old event seven times.
The Hoosiers have never won it. They've only made the championship game once, and that was in 2001, when they lost to Iowa.
“We've never been in this situation before, so practice has been a little different because we're going over both teams -- their plays and their players,” forward Derek Elston says. “We don't know who to get ready for, but we're still doing what we do in practice. We're getting better every day.
“We've done a lot of fundamental stuff this entire week. Once we find out who we play, we'll be ready to go.”
Indiana is no lock to advance. It is just 9-15 in this event, 1-7 in games decided by three points or less, or in overtime. They have lost seven of their last eight conference tourney games.
The Hoosiers split two games with Minnesota, winning 88-81 in mid-January at Assembly Hall when the Gophers (who opened 15-1) were a top-10 team, before getting beat up in Minneapolis 77-73 last month. They collapsed down the stretch to lose at Illinois at the buzzer, 74-72, also last month.
The Illini (who opened 12-0) also were once a top-10 team before struggling in Big Ten play.
“It makes us more focused definitely,” Oladipo says. “Just because they've beaten us and they're capable of beating us. But at the same time, you've got to be focused on anybody in this league, and we are focused on everybody in this league. You can lose any given night. That's just the beauty of this league, how tough it is. We're going to be prepared to play anybody whether it's Minnesota or Illinois.”
Speculation has IU a lock for a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed no matter what happens in Chicago. And the caliber of Big Ten opposition has generated buzz that the Hoosiers would be better off not having to play three games in three days, which would be the case if they reached Sunday's title game.
But you don't hear that buzz around the team.
“We want to accomplish so much more,” Oladipo says. “And the Big Ten Tournament is the first thing.”