Indiana's Victor Oladipo, battling Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross for a rebound Sunday, is building a strong case to be in the discussion for national player of the year./USA TODAY
by Mike Lopresti, USA TODAY Sports
COLUMBUS, Ohio - What if nobody is No. 1?
Maybe college basketball overflows this season with a lot of No. 2s and 3s, and we wait for someone's signature victory to give us a clue, as they come and go at the top. A sign that karma might indeed choose a frontrunner by March.
Sunday, it looked like Indiana.
Here, at last, was a No. 1 team playing like a No. 1 team, dominating No. 10 Ohio State 81-68. A day when three players - Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford - all had at least 20 points and missed only 10 of 32 shots. A day when the Hoosiers beat a top-10 team on the road for the first time in more than 12 years.
Finally, an unimpeachable argument for a No. 1 team to stay No. 1. Finally, you begin to see the makings of a team comfortable with its burden.
"I really don't think we've scratched the surface on how good we can be,'' Oladipo said. "We want to be the last one standing.''
Except the Hoosiers will probably be voted out of the top spot Monday because of a stunning loss at Illinois. The curvy road in the rankings.
"The only one that will matter is the one at the end of the season,'' Zeller said Sunday. "So we don't worry about it too much.''
Lots of bad things have happened this season to lots of good teams.
Duke went from No. 1 to losing by 27 points to Miami.
Louisville and Kansas went from No. 1 to three-game losing streaks.
Three days ago, the No. 1 Hoosiers blew a 10-point lead in the last minutes, and left an Illini player alone in his own ZIP code for a game-winning layup at the end.
Two days ago, Tom Crean began Indiana practice with a homily on the need to put teams away.
Sunday, the Hoosiers grabbed Ohio State by the throat and never let go.
"It's one thing to talk it as a coach, it's another thing to see it on film, it's a whole other thing when they absorb it,'' Crean said.
Which they did. This was an aberration in what has become a blood-curdling Big Ten season, where it seems every game is played to the last gasp.
The Buckeyes tried everything. That including having the first two letters of the O-H-I-O cheer on the scoreboard screen uttered by one Bob Knight. That name might ring a bell in Indiana.
But not even Knight with the O and the H could save the Buckeyes.
"Playing to win and not just playing for the time to run out,'' Zeller called it. "I think we grew up a lot tonight.''
The Hoosiers have had do a lot of that.
There was the pressure of starting the season No. 1 and losing the position. Twice.
"We've never really been down this road,'' Crean said. "You get that ranking back and then you lose the game and there are all kinds of emotions and thoughts going through your heads, and the tough ones, they figure out that it's all about improvement.''
There was pressure of Zeller as a magazine cover pick to be national player of the year as a sophomore.
"I feel like sometimes I have to defend them, especially Cody'' Crean said. "When you have a player like Cody, what you learn is the expectation for him is going to be different. It's going to different with the media, it's going to be different with the public. The thing you can't ever do is buy into what an outsider's expectation level is. You've got to make sure what his expectation level should be.''
And there is Oladipo. If Miami is the trendy pick for the new No. 1, Oladipo is the flavor of the month for national player of the year with his do-it-all game. Which is a nice thing to be when the month is February, but it's all new stuff to a guy with light national renown before the past two months.
Sunday was typical Oladipo - 26 points, eight rebounds, three assists, lots of defense. No wonder the buzz is growing.
"That's nice and all, but I remember where I came from,'' he said Sunday. "I don't really think of myself as that. I just want to win ballgames.
"There wasn't nobody saying that about me last year. That all can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye.''
Just like the No. 1 ranking, for a lot of teams, in a season where everyone is vulnerable. But at least Indiana looked the part Sunday.