Night Line: Indiana Notches Another Great Win, Complicating Big Ten MattersPosted by EJacoby on February 29th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Just when we thought the Big Ten pecking order was clearly established, Tuesday night’s action had to throw us all off a bit. Michigan State, already having clinched at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title, was dominated from the start and dropped a road game at Indiana, 70-55, in front of another raucous Bloomington crowd. The win gave Tom Crean and the Hoosiers their third win over a top five opponent this season, just the fourth time a team has done that in the past decade. With wins over No. 1 Kentucky, then-No. 2 Ohio State, and now No. 5 Michigan State, the Hoosiers have proven that their balanced attack can lead to elite results. But Tuesday’s win reverberated all the way to Columbus and Ann Arbor as well in that the Big Ten race now gets very interesting.
Before touching on what this win means for IU, it’s necessary to look at the impact Tuesday’s result could have for the Big Ten as a whole. A Michigan State win would have clinched the conference regular season title and enhanced their chance for a #1 seed, but the Spartans got thumped and dropped to 13-4 in conference. Now, Ohio State and Michigan both again sit just one game back of first place. Both teams play their remaining two games away from home, but if they do in fact handle business on the road then we will be looking at a three-way tie for the Big Ten title. If the Buckeyes can defeat Northwestern on Wednesday night, then Sunday afternoon’s game between OSU and MSU looms especially large. A win by Ohio State would give them a share of the Big Ten title, and it would be difficult for the Selection Committee to have Michigan State ranked higher on the NCAA Tournament S-Curve having lost two straight games and carrying a worse overall record. The game will be played in East Lansing, so Michigan State can end all such speculation by notching a win, a Big Ten title, and a great opportunity at a #1 seed. Of course, nothing has been going as planned this season, so you’ll just have to stay tuned in to see what happens the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Indiana gained some additional confidence with Tuesday’s win. Draymond Green (29 points) is the only Spartan who came to play, while IU got Christian Watford, Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls, Verdell Jones III, and Victor Oladipo all in double figures. It wasn’t just a home victory, but it was a shellacking of a top five opponent, giving the Hoosiers their 10th conference victory and a lot of momentum heading into their season finale against Purdue, also at home. IU will probably not finish better than fifth in the Big Ten, but this win all but guarantees them a protected seed come NCAA Tournament time. Very few teams, if any, have as many great wins this season as the Hoosiers. While all of IU’s elite wins have come at home, it still marks the first time in the storied program’s history that it has beaten three top-five opponents in the regular season. The Hoosier resume is rock solid despite a bad stretch early in the conference slate that saw the team drop a home game to Minnesota and a roadie at Nebraska. Since February 1, the Hoosiers have lost only one time, and oddly enough it was a bad loss at Iowa.
Indiana remains inconsistent in its efforts against different kinds of opponents. The team has seemingly played down to its competition against lesser foes, but gotten up big-time for games against the best. That makes for the perfect dilemma come Tournament time; will this team fall victim to a first round upset, or will it find itself knocking off another elite team in the Sweet Sixteen? Anything seems possible, but Tuesday’s victory looms large for what it does to the Hoosiers’ seeding. Now, IU should find itself avoiding any power conference, at-large teams in the first round that may be slated as 12-seeds. Instead, the Hoosiers should be matched up against a small conference champion in a #3-#14 or #4-#13 matchup, assuming they don’t stumble later on this week. It’s anyone’s guess as to what Indiana team will show up on the neutral floor environments of the postseason, but Tuesday night proved once again that this team can hang with anyone in the country.