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It’s been far too easy a storyline this year, to point to Indiana’s talented underclassmen and anoint them the saviors of Indiana basketball.
There’s no question freshman Cody Zeller’s presence in the post has completely reshaped how these Hoosiers must be defended. The flair for the dramatic of sophomore Victor Oladipo, so prevalent last season, has jumped several notches this season. His classmate, Will Sheehey, has been a literal spark off the bench.
Even junior Jordan Hulls — who’s actually the oldest of IU’s junior class, although he looks like the youngest — has overshadowed the other juniors and seniors on Indiana’s roster.
What to make, then, of the combination that provided the game-winning points in the Hoosiers’ biggest victory in years, that 73-72 stunner over No. 1 Kentucky?
Verdell Jones III has been often criticized for his style of play. It’s a reasonable point — his career assist-to-turnover ratio entering this season was 1.1:1 (294 assists to 269 turnovers in 87 games).
On the other hand, he not only stuck to his commitment to IU despite the Kelvin Sampson scandal, he’s gutted it out through injuries and less-talented teams to become a 1,000-point scorer.
Christian Watford has had his own injuries to contend with as well, while often playing out of position because Indiana didn’t have anyone else talented enough to play in the middle. And when the Hoosiers did find their big man in Zeller, Watford had to readjust his style of play.
That meant nine points and 3-of-14 shooting combined in Indiana’s first two games this season. He would rebound to go 11-of-14 in the next two games before struggling again (13-of-35 in the four games before Kentucky).
So in the biggest moment (well, 5.6 seconds, actually) of Indiana’s biggest game of the Tom Crean era, it wasn’t Oladipo or Sheehey or Hulls or even Zeller who came up biggest — although Zeller deserves an assist for his screen that freed Jones at midcourt.
No, it was Jones, avoiding Kentucky’s feeble foul attempts to drive to the basket before kicking it out to Watford.
3-pointer. Good. Hoosiers win, and the Assembly Hall fans rush the court.
There were some who groused last season when, after the Hoosiers beat No. 20 Illinois, fans rushed the court and Crean went to the Assembly Hall lobby to celebrate. “Act like you’ve been there before,” seemed to be the prevailing sentiment.
That’s just it. These Hoosiers hadn’t been there before. Indiana had been 0-for-19 against ranked opponents entering that game. And none of these Hoosiers had ever faced the country’s top-ranked team.
But they didn’t flinch. Not when they saw a 10-point lead evaporate for the third time. Not when Marquis Teague’s layup put the Wildcats up 1 with less than a minute to go. Not when Oladipo lost the ball with just over five seconds to play.
There’s still a long season to go, of course. There’s Notre Dame lying in wait on Saturday in a classic trap game scenario. There’s Howard and UMBC still waiting before the Big Ten schedule, and North Carolina Central ahead in a rare non-conference February showdown.
And the truth is that the Big Ten will test this team. Indiana is 8-46 in the conference under Crean, not counting the three opening-round losses in the Big Ten Tournament.
But that’s all ahead. For now, Indiana fans can bask in the afterglow of the victory over hated Kentucky.
All while, at Assembly Hall, these Hoosiers are still working.