No. 1 Kentucky? Check.
No. 2 Ohio State? Check.
No. 5 Michigan State? Check.
Each of those three teams, while ranked as listed, has fallen at Assembly Hall this season, adding a feat to the already deep lore of Indiana University basketball: the Hoosiers (23-7, 10-7 Big Ten) have knocked off three top-5 teams in the regular season for the first time ever.
Knocking off the Spartans in a 70-55 win Tuesday night adds yet another key victory to IU’s tournament resume — one that probably doesn’t need any more work to ensure the Hoosiers will go dancing for the first time under coach Tom Crean. For Crean, the players and Hoosier Nation, that has to feel good.
Crean put forth perhaps his best coaching effort yet in besting his close friend, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. His Hoosiers held Izzo’s Spartans to 39.2 percent from the field while IU shot at a 47.9 clip itself. Five Hoosiers scored in double figures; one Spartan — national player of the year candidate Draymond Green — accomplished the same. Green finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals and kept the score a lot closer than the game actually was.
Coming out of the halftime break with a 41-27 lead, the Hoosiers withstood a 10-0 run by Michigan State — powered by Green — and responded every time the Spartans threatened. Junior forward Christian Watford grew up before our eyes, responding to critics who charged he hasn’t totally bought into what Crean is selling. He finished with 10 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, including a monster grab off a missed free throw that set up his essential dagger 3-pointer that banked off the backboard.
Freshman big man Cody Zeller, a sure-fire Freshman All-American, dazzled once again. He finished with 18 points and two steals, one of which he took to the house on a fast-break dunk late in the game (seriously, how many bigs in the country can run the floor like Zeller can?).
Senior guard Verdell Jones III gave another senior effort, adding 12 points and four rebounds off the bench. Sophomore guard Victor Oladipo added 13 points and matched Zeller’s two steals. The kid will continue to be a legitimate on-ball defender in the Big Ten.
A complete team effort backed by a raucous Assembly Hall crowd reminiscent of the program’s traditional glory. All that comes to mind is how rewarding this season, which certainly has had its down moments (home loss to Minnesota and road losses at Nebraska and Iowa), must feel after enduring six-, 10- and 12-win seasons in Crean’s first three years at the helm of the fallen power.
Most probably expected this year’s Hoosiers to make more small gains, finish above .500 and reach the NIT — maybe the NCAA tournament with a few signature wins. And certainly there was optimism for the near future with the highly touted 2012 recruiting class on the way, sure to be followed by more strong assemblances thanks to Crean’s tireless work within the state of Indiana.
But most people probably didn’t expect a 23-win season this year. Some thought 20-plus wins was certainly feasible, though they probably didn’t anticipate the squad doing something that hadn’t been accomplished in the history of the program — knocking off three top-5 teams at Assembly Hall.
But indeed the Hoosiers have accomplished such a feat, and hey, with a trip to the NCAA tournament now firmly in their plans for March, they might not be done.
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