Thursday, December 22, 2011
Look Out Big Ten, Here Come the Unbeaten Hoosiers
So what do we make of the Indiana Hoosiers?
They are 12-0 and ranked No. 17. They are the Big Ten’s only undefeated team. Only two conference schools are rated higher –- No. 2 Ohio State (11-1) and No. 13 Wisconsin (10-2).
They also are one of six remaining undefeated schools nationally. The others are No. 1 Syracuse, No. 4 Louisville, No. 6 Baylor, No. 9 Missouri and No. 22 Murray State.
IU has one more non-conference game, but that’s not until Feb. 22 against North Carolina Central. It will be, without question, an Assembly Hall victory.
So what do we make of these Hoosiers?
They’re a bit banged up, for one thing. Nothing that suggests season-ending problems, but Will Sheehey has a sprained ankle, Derek Elston a surgically repaired nose and Verdell Jones a tweaked hip. This will test the Hoosiers’ depth, but then, so can foul trouble.
This has the makings of the best Cream ‘n Crimson squad since the 2002 team reached the national title game, although that 25-12 group –- coached by Mike Davis and led by Jared Jeffries, Tom Coverdale and Dane Fife -- didn’t peak until the NCAA Tournament.
Kelvin Sampson’s second and final IU team had Final Four potential with future NBA players Eric Gordon and D.J. White, but it also had some questionable characters who failed to understand the importance of academics, good attitude, fitness and representing the university well.
Oh, yes, there were the phone-call violations the resulted in Sampson’s late-season resignation. Indiana lost four of its last five games, flamed out in the opening round of the NCAA tourney, and finished 25-8.
These Hoosiers are nothing like that. They represent the best of Cream ‘n Crimson ideals. Their victory over Kentucky showcased what college sports are supposed to be about.
Are they a Big Ten contender?
Will they beat out Ohio State, the overwhelming favorite if Jared Sullinger stays healthy?
Are they a Final Four team?
We don’t see it, although a Sweet Sixteen appearance is possible, with the second round most likely.
Here’s what we know.
IU has the Big Ten’s second-best big man after Sullinger in Cody Zeller. It has an all-conference forward in Christian Watford. It’s got senior backcourt leadership from Jones (who might finish among the top 15 scorers in school history). It has a sharp-shooting guard in Jordan Hulls who doesn’t miss free throws (the one he missed Thursday night against Maryland Baltimore County was a once-a-year rarity) and rarely misses three-pointers. It has two of the most athletic guards in the Big Ten in Victor Oladipo and Sheehey.
It has a decent bench with Sheehey, Elston, Tom Pritchard, Remy Abell and Matt Roth.
Most importantly, it has a defensive resolve and overall tenacity honed from three years of sanction-caused misery. It is as hungry as any team in America.
And thanks to this 12-0 start, it is very, very confident.
So many things are possible.
The Hoosiers have as tough an opening to Big Ten play as you could have with a game at No. 19 Michigan State, then home games against Ohio State and No. 20 Michigan, all in eight days. Okay, all three could be on the road (Ohio State has the nation’s third-longest home winning streak at 28), but not even the most sadistic schedule maker would do that.
If IU goes 2-1 in that beginning, it has a conference-winning chance. A 1-2 mark would keep it in the hunt, especially if the win is against Ohio State. Going 0-3 is too big a hole with road trips to Wisconsin, Purdue (which has the nation’s fourth-longest home streak at 25 straight) and Michigan looming.
A 3-0 start against that schedule, by the way, is unrealistic, but then, so was a win over Kentucky.
For now, though, bask in the Christmas-is-coming glow of a non-conference job well done and the realization that, no matter what the Big Ten might bring, fun is back in Indiana basketball.