College Basketball Nation: Indiana Hoosiers

2013-14 hoops season in review

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10

Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.

With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:

Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.

Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikScoring machine Doug McDermott was one of the many seniors to make an impact on this season.
Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.

Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by for a second straight season.

Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.

Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.

Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim's jacket-removing, court-sprinting rant against Duke earned his first regular-season ejection.
Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.

Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.

Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).

3-point shot: A look at the selection process

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18

Andy Katz examines the selection process for the NCAA touranment and the NIT.

Recruit and return: NCAA misses

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17

While the 68 teams that made the NCAA tournament prepare for the madness, fans of teams on the outside must turn the page to next year. Thanks to a core of returning players and strong incoming recruits, here are five programs that could be dancing at this time next year.

Georgetown Hoyas

Quick references:
Georgetown's 2013-14 roster
Georgetown's 2014 recruiting class

Possible 2014-15 starting five:

G: D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera

G: Jabril Trawick

F: Paul White

F: Mikael Hopkins

C: Josh Smith


Who it loses: Four players will be gone for coach John Thompson III. Markel Starks and Nate Lubick have been starters since they were sophomores and were instrumental to last season's Big East championship team. Starks was first team All-Big East this season, scoring 17 points per game. Aaron Bowen played a big role as the sixth man and gave the team a spark off the bench. At times, he played starter's minutes. Moses Ayegba was a front-court presence off the bench and was a strong presence in the paint.

Who it adds: This four-man class is the nation's seventh best and it includes three ESPN 100 players. This class is loaded with versatility and scoring talent as the Hoyas will continue to cause matchup problems for opponents. Isaac Copeland's growth continues to impresses us, as he combines size and athletic ability with a very fluid set of skills. He won a championship at Brewster Academy in the New England Prep school league, which is some of the best competition in the country. Paul White is the consummate forward in the Georgetown system as he showed he could be a facilitator, bucket-getter or defender. L.J. Peak is a battle-tested and tough small forward who can score in different ways and someone who can play right away because he competes so hard. Tre Campbell was a first-team all-league performer as a point guard in the prestigious WCAC, an ultra-competitive Washington, D,C.-area high school conference. Georgetown predicates its system of having a high level of skill on the floor at all times and this class gives them that edge plus a whole lot more.

What it means for next season: Next season's team could be more gifted and athletic as the freshman class gives them a big boost. The one freshman who needs to be good early is Campbell, because of the departure of Starks. With Smith-Rivera returning as the team's leading scorer and best 3-point shooter, and Smith back controlling the inside, this team could be a contender for a Big East title. Georgetown has always played the game with many interchangeable parts and next season it will have plenty of pieces to choose from.

Trending: Up. The Hoyas return the strength of their roster and add a lot of talent. Under the guidance of JT3, that means more postseason appearances. - Paul Biancardi

For breakdowns of Indiana, Maryland, Seton Hall and USC, click here Insider.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The question wasn’t terribly difficult or even unique. Odds are Tom Crean has heard it a few hundred times in his coaching career.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsTracy Abrams was one of three Illinois players in double figures against Indiana.
But when asked, minutes after his Indiana team lost to Illinois 64-54 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, what his message was for his team, Crean paused. He paused for a really long time, started to talk and then stopped himself, looked up to the ceiling as if trying to divine an answer from the tiles and finally answered.

“We have to match the toughness and competitive spirit every time we play,” he said.

Crean went on for a bit longer on that same theme, until finally he came around to the real answer and the reason for that long pause.

“I try to deliver that message differently,” he said, “because I’ve given it a few times.”

Which, of course, is exactly the problem with the Hoosiers. The message isn’t getting through now and hasn’t gotten through all season. The same things that ailed them in November are still points of emphasis now -- smart defense, commitment for an entire game, grit and determination.

It’s all added up to an abysmal 17-15 record that, as pedestrian as that reads, is actually not that good. It includes the helter-skelter results that mirror this helter-skelter season -- wins against Iowa and Ohio State, losses to Penn State and Purdue.

Indiana is young, relying almost exclusively on freshmen and sophomores (Will Sheehey being the exception), but just like folks down the highway in Kentucky are tired of hearing that refrain, the message is falling on deaf ears in Bloomington too.

The Hoosiers are headed to the NIT -- Crean made it perfectly clear after the loss to the Illini that he believes and wants his team in the postseason -- except no one wants to go to the NIT.

In a lot of ways, it’s not entirely this particular team’s fault. The aggravation and impatience that is suddenly voicing its displeasure around the Hoosier State (a Twitter pulse check postgame found serious elevated blood pressure) is almost a lingering hangover from last year’s Sweet 16 exodus.

So much was expected from that team a year ago, promised even. After the long road back from Kelvin Sampson Exile, Indiana was back -- preseason No. 1, Final Four aspirations, a national program enjoying its place in the sun once again -- but it never materialized, ending a weekend before the Final Four in Atlanta.

Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo left, and so some reorganization was to be expected. But with a good freshman class coming in and Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell back, this was supposed to be the time that the Hoosiers do what the Hoosiers always did. They would regroup because the top programs never had to be rebuilt over and over again.

And now this, back to the dregs of the NIT, back to asking fans to be patient through some growing pains after there were so many rebirthing pains before then.

“We have the talent,” Crean said. “We just have to get to growing up and continue to learn.”

Except that’s a tough message for Crean to deliver, almost as difficult as trying to drive the message home to his team.

Tournament preview: Big Ten

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

The beautiful chaos in the Big Ten this season didn’t disappoint. Michigan emerged from the rubble despite losing former Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and competing without Mitch McGary for most of the season.

Wisconsin’s streak of top-four finishes and NCAA tourney appearances under Bo Ryan continues. Nebraska might be dancing, too.

The league’s perennial mantra -- there are no easy wins in the Big Ten -- is more than just talk. Penn State swept Ohio State. Northwestern beat Wisconsin in Madison. Illinois went to East Lansing and upset Michigan State.

"As soon as you act like you've arrived, you're going to fall pretty quickly," Illini coach John Groce told reporters after that March 1 victory.

Every team in this league has experienced that to some degree this season.

The highs and lows to date makes this event in Indianapolis the most intriguing conference tourney in the country.

What’s at stake?

[+] EnlargeMichigan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein's Wolverines, the top seed in Indy, are playing with confidence.
There was a time when Wisconsin was unraveling. And the crux of the crumble centered on defense, a usually dependable strength for the Badgers. But they couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- defend anyone during that nasty 1-5 stretch.

They’re 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency now, per Ken Pomeroy, but they approached triple digits during that rocky stretch. They recovered, however, with an eight-game winning streak that Nebraska snapped on Sunday.

Now Wisconsin could have an outside shot at a top seed. The Badgers boast a 15-5 record against the RPI’s top 100 and a résumé that includes nonconference wins over Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia. Perhaps a Big Ten tournament championship would be a convincing argument for the selection committee.

But the Badgers might have to get through Michigan State in the semifinals to get there. The Spartans are finally (somewhat) healthy, but the complete Michigan State squad has struggled. Tom Izzo’s team has suffered losses in seven of its past 12 games. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State preserving Izzo’s streak of sending every four-year player he’s ever coached in East Lansing to the Final Four, unless it finds some mojo in Indianapolis.

The field, however, is a gauntlet. Top-seed Michigan was a step above the rest of the conference. John Beilein’s team has that same bravado right now that the Wolverines used to fuel last season's Final Four run.

Nebraska’s win over Wisconsin on Sunday might have sealed its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. But Tim Miles isn’t preaching guarantees to the underdogs in Lincoln, Neb. Will this ride continue in the Big Ten tournament? It’s certainly possible.

Iowa might have the most to lose. The Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule (21st) has helped them preserve their dreams of earning their first NCAA berth since 2006. But a Thursday loss to Northwestern would be its sixth defeat in seven games. Iowa entered the season as a team that appeared to be capable of winning a few games in the Big Dance. A stumble this week, however, could put the Hawkeyes in a bad spot in their first-round matchup.

Ohio State, second in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, is still a threat to the field. And Illinois (4-1 in its past five games) is probably the sleeper. And who knows, maybe Yogi Ferrell and a strong showing by Indiana fans will make the festivities interesting for the Hoosiers.

Team with the most to gain

When Richard Pitino took the Minnesota job, folks around the program were talking about its future, not its present.

But the Gophers have the most at stake entering the Big Ten tourney because this could be the difference between an NIT bid and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Their 6-10 record against the RPI’s top 100 could be a problem they could address with a few quality wins in the Big Ten tournament. They’ve been on the bubble for weeks. But a strong outing in Indianapolis could really help a program that’s living off its No. 5 SOS right now.

3-point shot: One-and-done is NBA rule

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4

Andy Katz discusses the one-and-done rule, Indiana's role as a Big Ten spoiler and Arkansas' late-season charge.

Video: Capital One Impact nominees

March, 2, 2014
Mar 2
The nominees for the Capital One Cup Impact Performance of the Week include North Carolina's Marcus Paige, Tennessee's Jordan McRae, Michigan's Glenn Robinson III and Indiana's Will Sheehey.

Game Plan is our Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.

It is a testament to how good Arizona has been for so long that today, Feb. 3, is the first in which it is appropriate to talk about what they can’t do, what they don’t have, what adjustments they need to make.

It is also, of course, a testament to Brandon Ashley.

On Saturday night, the best and most balanced team in the country lost its first game of the season. It did so at Cal in a brutal shooting performance that persisted until the final minute, when guard Nick Johnson earned a great 15-foot look at a go-ahead bucket and just plain missed. Cal’s Justin Cobbs took a much more difficult shot on the other end -- a 17-foot step-back baseline jumper over Kaleb Tarczewski -- and banged it. Cal fans stormed the court with time on the clock, Mike Montgomery screamed at them like a frustrated high school dean of discipline and then Cal fans stormed the court again, joyously and officially, when the clock said zero.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNick Johnson and Arizona finally fell, but the Wildcats -- even with the loss of Brandon Ashley -- are still set up to be a championship contender.
All of this was very fun. It was also no big deal to Arizona. The Wildcats shot horribly and lost a conference game on the road in the final minute; these things happen. In a vacuum, Sean Miller would have left that game feeling fine. No thinking fan’s impression of Arizona would have changed.

But Arizona’s loss was much greater than any single game. It lost Ashley, its starting power forward, to a broken foot that ended his season.

Miller’s immediate pessimism after the game Saturday proved prescient. Now he and the Wildcats have to figure out exactly what to do without one of their most important players. They have to find out whether a team without Ashley can be as good as one with him.

There is some good news. If there is one position the Wildcats could afford an injury to, it is the frontcourt. Losing either point guard T.J. McConnell or All-American-level shooting guard Johnson would leave Miller with a gaping hole in his rotation. Losing Ashley still leaves the Wildcats with one of the best centers in the country (Tarczewski) and one of the most athletic, active forwards (freshman Aaron Gordon).

But that’s also kind of the downside: Being bigger and more physical and more active in the paint is exactly the thing that has separated Arizona from most of the country’s national title contenders. And not only was Ashley great around the rim and on the glass, his ability to step outside and make spot-up shots (his second most-frequent play type, according to Synergy) kept the Wildcats from becoming too crowded and bogged down. It kept a strength from morphing into a weakness.

On Saturday night, Miller said his staff needs to get back to the proverbial drawing board and "make sure we can move forward if Brandon is not with us." That if is now when. So what will that entail?

It appears Miller has two options. The first is a simple insertion of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona’s other hyper-athletic freshman, and maybe moving Gordon to the power forward spot. The problem with this is that both players do similar things, and neither spaces the floor like Ashley. (Cal all but begged Gordon to shoot Saturday night. He usually demurred.) The other option is Gabe York, the Wildcats' best 3-point shooter. York forces defenses to be honest out to the 3-point line, but he’s also 6-foot-3 and offers little in the way of penetration. The latter option might make Arizona’s offense more efficient, its personnel less redundant. But it could cost the Wildcats their identity.

The answer is not cut and dry, of course; Miller will play a combination of lineups, just as he has all season. Situation and opponent will often dictate the decision, and adjustments will be made. Still, just because Arizona lost a player at a loaded position doesn’t mean the injury won’t profoundly change its season.


[+] EnlargeYogi Ferrell
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsYogi Ferrell scored 27 points in Indiana's win over Michigan, continuing the Hoosiers' schizophrenic season.
Indiana beats No. 10 Michigan 63-52 and steals North Carolina’s mantle as the most utterly confusing team on Planet Earth. So here’s Indiana’s past six results: Home win over Wisconsin, home loss to Northwestern, a hard-fought loss at Michigan State, home win over Illinois, road loss to Nebraska and home win over Michigan. How does one attempt to make sense of such a thing? Maybe things aren’t quite as strange as they seem at face value: For starters, Nebraska isn’t all that bad. The Hoosiers are often a mess offensively, but they’ve guarded well all season, and when they get big nights from Yogi Ferrell (and don’t turn the ball over that often) they can be effective enough on offense to beat good teams. Michigan spent the month of January in a state of offensive hotness that was bound to regress eventually. Ferrell scored 27 points. Combine all of these things, and you’re getting closer to understanding the mystery that is the Indiana Hoosiers. But still: What a list of scorelines, huh?

Malcolm Brogdon stuns Pitt on last-second 3, Cavaliers remain factor in the ACC race. On Saturday night’s "College Basketball Live," Andy Katz made special note of the Virginia Cavaliers; he reminded people that while Syracuse still looks like the favorite to win the ACC (especially after Saturday night’s thrilling win over Duke), the Cavaliers and their much easier schedule were lurking. And that was before Sunday. The Cavaliers came away with a great -- if slow-paced, defensive, and often ugly -- 48-45 win at Pittsburgh thanks to a last-second 3 from Brogdon and a brilliant defensive effort that held Lamar Patterson to just 3-of-14 from the field. There are immediate implications for Pitt, namely that the Panthers still have anything resembling a marquee win on their résumé. But just as important is what the win means for Virginia. It’s close to a guarantee of an NCAA tournament bid, for starters, but it also establishes Tony Bennett’s team as the one obvious disruptor of Syracuse’s ACC title march.

Oh, and then there’s Syracuse. If you somehow missed Saturday’s 45-minute expression of basketball beauty,’s Dana O’Neil was there: "Syracuse beat Duke 91-89 in overtime. That’s the short story. The long version is almost too hard to explain, played as much on guts as talent, with as much intensity as heart. It went an extra five minutes. It still didn’t seem like enough. It was that good. Rasheed Sulaimon hit a buzzer-beating 3 to force overtime. Rodney Hood missed a one-handed, would-be game-winning dunk that would have been so monstrous had it gone down instead of off the back of the rim, it would rank as a top 10 for the season. C.J. Fair scored 28 on every sort of floater and muscle drive you could conjure. A record 35,446 Orange juiced fans filled the Dome, cheering so loudly that even Seattle Seahawks fans had to be impressed. That’s a season’s worth of highlights in one game. 'How many people can say they were a part of a game like this?' Krzyzewski said."

STAT OF THE WEEK: Stat of the week has spent most of its existence serving as the default Creighton-Doug McDermott dumping ground, so let’s change it up and honor another 3-point wizard. On Saturday, Oakland guard Travis Bader broke J.J. Redick’s record for most 3-pointers in the history of college basketball. Let’s go to Oakland coach Greg Kampe: "You've got a guy sitting in the room that's the greatest of all-time at something, and we're not talking about flipping a tiddlywink or something like that. This game's been played for a long, long time, and he's the best ever. And he's still got seven, eight games left."


(For two more in-depth previews of big games week to come, check back for Monday morning’s "Planning for Success" series.)


Wichita State at Indiana State, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN3: Wichita State’s quest for perfection rolls on. The Shockers had their hands full against Evansville Saturday; they trailed by 15 at one point in the first half, but, just as they did weeks ago at Missouri State, Gregg Marshall’s team rallied in time to put yet another win on the board. They also set up this massive contest. The Sycamores are the second-best team in the Missouri Valley Conference and difficult to beat on their own floor. If Wichita State escapes Terre Haute, Ind., with a win, the chances of it finishing the regular season unbeaten -- and making it to the NCAA tournament without a loss -- will be a statistical probability.


Oregon at Arizona, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The good news for Arizona is that its first game in the post-Ashley era comes against a flailing Oregon team that has (A) lost five of its past seven games and (B) doesn’t really have post players.

UConn at Cincinnati, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Cincinnati’s defensive brilliance has been documented at length in this space before, but it was on full display last week at Louisville, when it held the Cardinals -- a truly efficient offensive group -- to a seven points in their first 20 possessions. Louisville’s full-court pressure made it a game late before Sean Kilpatrick took matters into his own hands, but it was that ability to put good opponents in a hole (and generally make life miserable for 40 minutes) that earned Cincy the win.


Michigan at Iowa, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN: From the first week of January onward, no team in the country was as hot as Michigan, and it was probably only a matter of time before the Wolverines experienced a brush with the regression of the real world. That came Sunday at Indiana. Iowa, meanwhile, can no longer rely on its win at Ohio State to secure its reputation. RPI-wise? Maybe. Perception-wise, no. This is a big game for both, but far bigger for the Hawks.


Benjamin OkunHyoung Chang/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesBenjamin Okun of Syracuse, N.Y., heads into MetLife Stadium before Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday afternoon. I don't know if he came straight from the Syracuse-Duke game without changing clothes, but I'm pretty sure Benjamin had the best weekend ever.

The opponent mattered as much as the circumstances Tuesday night.

Although Michigan State had the luxury of competing in East Lansing, it still faced a viable Indiana team that’s searching for an identity. That’s always a dangerous predicament for a favored home team because an opponent might find it midgame.

Plus, Wooden Award candidate Adreian Payne missed the matchup due to a sprained right foot that reportedly could sideline him for the next two weeks.

The Hoosiers were combative in their hunt for a significant road win -- the only elixir for a recent loss to Northwestern -- as expected. But Michigan State emerged from the rubble with a 71-66 victory and a remarkable 7-0 start in the arduous Big Ten.

The Spartans continue to regroup when personnel limits threaten their success.

No Payne? Fine.

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Duane Burleson/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Garry Harris drives against Indiana's Noah Vonleh.
Gary Harris, a possible lottery pick this summer, scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half. Michigan State forced 18 turnovers against an Indiana team that continues to cost itself possessions and games with sloppy ballhandling.

The Spartans were down 46-41 with 11:51 to play. But by the 3:53 mark, they were ahead by 10. A few free throws in the final minute and the Spartans had proven, again, that they’re the current Big Ten kings and threats to reach Arlington, Texas, in April.

“I made no bones about it at the beginning of the year that this is one of those teams that I think has a legitimate shot,” Tom Izzo told reporters prior to Tuesday’s game. “And, I think that we've proven that we do. We could lose three games in a row and still prove that we do.”

That potential is tied to its overall health, though.

And the Spartans haven’t really been 100 percent all season.

That hasn’t stopped them from climbing to the top of the league and winning their last 11 games, following a loss to North Carolina on Dec. 4. But it’s still the lingering concern for the program.

Payne is out. Harris has dealt with an ankle injury -- he played with a bad shoulder last year. Travis Trice missed time due to illness. Matt Costello, too. Just three players saw action in each of the team’s first 18 games.


The Spartans are deep enough to tussle with any team in the Big Ten, even if Payne can’t go or Harris is hobbled or Trice doesn’t feel well. They’ve shown that multiple times.

Their ceiling is high. To reach it, however, Izzo will need a healthy roster.

Noah Vonleh is an NBA-ready freshman who’s gradually opening the toolbox and showing off talents that should compel scouts to slobber. He took advantage of Payne’s absence in a performance that carried the Hoosiers (13 points, 13 rebounds, one block, one steal).

Payne is a significant component on offense and defense for the Spartans. He’s agile enough to contain shooters and big enough to stop post players. Yogi Ferrell (19 points, 4-for-13) might have had even more trouble finding good shots with Payne on the floor.

Yet, they won without him.

Tuesday’s win provided more proof of Michigan State’s resilience. The best teams ignore circumstances and adjust.

But injuries -- especially if Payne isn’t available for a lengthy period or if he’s bothered by the foot injury for the remainder of the season -- could be detrimental in the coming weeks. The Spartans will play Michigan, Iowa (in Iowa City), Georgetown, Penn State and Wisconsin (in Madison) in their next five games. It’s a stretch that will either solidify their spot atop the Big Ten or jeopardize it, as conference frontrunners ascend.

An interesting transition is taking place in college basketball right now. The true contenders are beginning to emerge.

Arizona is a versatile juggernaut that would be a nightmare for any team in the country. Tyler Ennis has helped Syracuse stay on top of the ACC. And Joel Embiid’s presence might position Kansas to be the scariest team in the field of 68 come March.

In late January, squads often take shape and turn the corner, for better or worse. The overrated are exposed. The elite young teams tend to evolve this time of year as they finally reach a level of chemistry and maturity that they just didn’t have in November and December. The veteran programs win the gritty games and showcase the true value of experience.

Things begin to make sense in college basketball as February approaches.

Or fall apart.

The Spartans continue to avoid the latter scenario even as injuries affect their lineups.

If Izzo’s squad does what it’s capable of doing and wins the Big Ten and makes a commendable run in March, then the program will earn rightful praise for its ability to navigate this midseason turbulence.

But if this injury bug undercuts the Spartans, and if it refuses to relinquish its hold the rest of the way, then Michigan State’s year could end with disappointment and a question.

What if the Spartans had been healthy?

Video: Cap One Impact Performances

January, 19, 2014
Jan 19
The Capital One Cup Impact Performances of the Week include Doug McDermott, Andrew Wiggins, Yogi Ferrell and Joel Embiid.
Indiana beat No. 3 Wisconsin 75-72 in Bloomington, Ind., on Tuesday night. You’ve seen this? You’ve heard about this?

It was a huge victory for the Hoosiers, who got their first quality résumé victory of a season marked by frustrating offense and teeth-grinding losses — before Tuesday, when the Hoosiers’ best win was Washington (gulp), there was no reason to say Indiana belonged in anything but the NIT. It was a major moment for point guard Yogi Ferrell, who was benched and challenged to tighten things up, and responded by making every big shot down the stretch. And it was a hard-earned win for Indiana coach Tom Crean, whose program had lost its last 12 games to the Badgers — a streak Crean very much wanted to end.

And as soon as all of those things happened, people stopped talking about any of it. Instead, they turned their attentions to Indiana students, to a thousand giddy kids who streamed onto the court to celebrate and jump around and shout.

Minor outrage ensued. I got emails and text messages from friends and readers; I saw more tweets on the topic than I could keep up with. ESPN’s own Seth Greenberg — who later engaged in a fun, lighthearted little debate on "SportsCenter" with Jay Williams (which is the tone all of this should take, because it is not a serious topic) — succinctly summarized the feelings of many:

Last week, John Calipari popped a related, not-so-subliminal shot at Indiana fans on his radio show. “If we won a game against the No. 1 team in the country in Rupp Arena, would people charge the court?” Calipari said. “No. You're supposed to [win]. You're Kentucky. We don't do that here.”

That’s the general gist of the argument against the Hoosiers’ court-storming kids: To storm the court is to concede inferiority. Indiana, one of the sport’s elite, blue-blood programs, should be above self-imposed underdog status.

This argument has come up a lot in Bloomington these past few years. In 2009, in the darkest days of its post-Kelvin Sampson nightmare, Indiana won just one conference game. In 2010, when it beat a bad Minnesota team at home, the students rushed the floor, happy just to be happy. In 2011, when IU beat a decent Illinois team 52-49 at Assembly Hall — en route to a 12-win season, by the way — Crean and IU fans held an extended love-in in the arena lobby. For many longtime Indiana fans, this stuff was embarrassing, accompanied by groans and sad reality checks. I remember my Chicago buddy’s text message: “Since when is Indiana this happy to beat a program that hangs its Final Four banners?” My response involved Kyle Taber, I think.

The scene that accompanied the 2012 victory over eventual national champion Kentucky was totally different, with changing connotations: spontaneous, gleeful, cathartic, but also a sign that the bad, sad days of being happy to beat Minnesota were officially over. Indiana basketball was back.

I figured Indiana students would probably lay off the court-storms going forward. The argument that students born in the early 1990s hadn’t seen an IU team succeed was always kind of suspect — IU’s student body knows exactly how good its basketball program was — but in 2012-13, IU spent much of the season ranked No. 1 and sent Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo to the top five of the NBA draft. Expectations had changed, and so would the approach to taking the floor.

[+] EnlargeIndiana
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTom Crean and Yogi Ferrell created quite a memory for Indiana students on Tuesday.
And then Tuesday night happened. Yes, Wisconsin was unbeaten and ranked No. 3, and had beaten IU 12 straight times since January 2007; yes, a struggling young Hoosiers team gave its best and most thrilling performance of the season. But surely students wouldn’t rush the court, because IU should usua- — ha, yep! There they go!

There’s a classic old episode of the timeless ABC reality program “Wife Swap” (stay with me) in which a young, headstrong boy named Curtis (or “King Curtis,” as his family calls him) refuses to listen to a health-obsessed swapee named Joy.

Curtis, you see, loves chicken nuggets. With the blessing of his parents, chicken nuggets comprise nearly 100 percent of Curtis’ daily nutritional intake. When Joy attempts to introduce the family to vegetables and the merits of exercise, Curtis reacts poorly. Among his many classic protests is a placard that reads: “I’m not lisning [sic] to your rules.”

It didn’t matter how calmly Joy presented the case (which, her being a crazy person on a reality TV show, wasn’t very calmly at all). It didn’t matter what deal she offered. Curtis didn’t want to eat vegetables. So he packed a bag, left for his grandmother’s house, and ate chicken nuggets there instead.

The fable of King Curtis is a good way to look at Tuesday night in Bloomington, Ind. There are always rules to court-storming, and everyone has their own: Whether your opponent is good enough, whether you’re bad enough, whether “programs” with traditions are allowed, whether the game is close or a blowout, and on and on and on. A lot of these fuzzy “rules” make sense only in so far as any such rules make sense, but if you acknowledge them, there is a certain order to the whole idea.

Tuesday night, the AP wrote that “the postgame celebration exemplified how critical the win was to a team that had been mostly inconsistent.” I mean, maybe? Or maybe a thousand collegiate bros and ladybros just wanted to get out there on the court and take a few rad Snapchats. Selfie anarchy! We did it, brah!! Sick!

As the aforelinked selfie clearly demonstrates, Indiana students love storming the court the same way Curtis loved chicken nuggets. Tell them why they shouldn’t; read them your rules for court-storming; bargain as much as you like. It’s not going to matter. They aren’t lisning to your rules. They’re too busy having fun.

If it wasn’t a must-win, then what was it?

Indiana entered Tuesday’s matchup against previously undefeated, third-ranked Wisconsin in a bind. The young Hoosiers have some gifted athletes, but they’ve struggled against elite opponents and subsequently missed chances to register the victories that impress the selection committee.

Had they lost to the Badgers in Bloomington -- instead of pulling off the 75-72 upset -- it would not have surprised many since they’d lost their last 12 matchups against Wisconsin.

But they also would have suffered their third defeat in four games. A 1-3 Big Ten record would not have been fatal, necessarily. But later this week, they’ll face a Northwestern team that just beat the Illinois squad that outplayed them in Champaign.

A road game against Michigan State will follow. Then Illinois again.

They’ll kick off February with matchups against capable Michigan and Minnesota squads.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ferrell
AP Photo/R Brent SmithYogi Ferrell keyed the Hoosiers' late run past No. 3 Wisconsin and gave Indiana a win it really needed.
For a program asking underclassmen to play like veterans, it was easy to see how a loss to Wisconsin could have led an early free fall for Indiana.

Maybe they’d recover in time to make a push into the NCAA tournament. In recent years, other youthful Big Ten squads in similar positions, however, did not.

Indiana needed a spark.

So its 10-point deficit with 13:30 to go was more than a gap. It was a moment that could have extended its rough start in conference play and added another loss to a résumé that looked hollow entering the week.

The Hoosiers had recovered from a 15-point gap in their previous game, a win at Penn State. But this was different.

Wisconsin hadn’t buckled all year. And the Badgers had beaten better teams. Florida, Saint Louis, Iowa.

Equipped with the top offense in the Big Ten prior to Tuesday, they had a tendency to submit teams down the stretch. And they were in position again to force the Hoosiers to tap in Bloomington.

But the Badgers cooled off. And Yogi Ferrell (25 points, four assists, no turnovers), who’d been benched for a brief stretch in the second half, began to control the floor.

He had help. Evan Gordon, Will Sheehey, Noah Vonleh and Stanford Robinson were all contributors in Indiana’s 14-2 run over the next five minutes.

Sometimes a team matures in the middle of a game. The Hoosiers did that.

Facing a deficit against an experienced and unblemished Wisconsin squad, they were the better team in the final minutes.

It started with Ferrell, who could have pouted after Tom Crean kept him on the sideline after halftime. But he shook it off and helped the Hoosiers handle Wisconsin down the stretch.

His 3-pointer and jumper put Indiana ahead by five points with two minutes to play. His late free throws sealed the win.

If Crean can get that from his sophomore leader -- remember, he’s only a sophomore -- then Indiana can grab additional quality wins in league play.

Vonleh, a potential lottery pick, is growing. Sheehey is playing like the veteran Indiana needs. Gordon, Robinson and others can help, too.

The Hoosiers averaged 17.0 turnovers in their first three Big Ten games. They committed nine against Wisconsin. They hit 52 percent of their shots.

And they beat (arguably) the best team in the Big Ten.

It’s too early to make grand assumptions about the potential long-term positives of the win. Indiana should be more confident. But it’s difficult for young teams to turn a big win into a winning streak. They usually wrestle with inconsistency.

The win should be encouraging for Crean’s program, but it doesn’t solve everything. Yes, the Hoosiers competed with an elite team in a game that wasn’t finalized until the final seconds and they won. Indiana displayed a rare grit against the Badgers, too.

It’s still just one win. There are 14 more Big Ten games to play. Indiana could rise or fall in the coming weeks.

So maybe Tuesday’s game wasn’t a must-win.

Then again, for a young team seeking a turning point, maybe it was.

Video: Game Plan -- Wisconsin vs. Indiana

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
Seth Greenberg examines Tuesday's Big Ten matchup between Wisconsin and Indiana and provides a game plan for each team.
What we're reading as we craft our own Megacast Film Room pitch. Submit links via Twitter.
  • Kentucky coach John Calipari is nothing if not entertaining. This week, on his weekly radio show, Calipari criticized the media’s reaction (or lack thereof) to UK’s victory over Louisville. He also took a subliminal shot at Indiana fans. The result was Calipari’s hilarious rhetorical duality on full display: Woebegone victim one minute, chest-thumping factionalist the next.
“If we won a game against the No. 1 team in the country in Rupp Arena, would people charge the court? No. You're supposed to [win]. You're Kentucky. We don't do that here.”

“That Louisville game we had 100 writers. Hundred media. Seven wrote stories. Ninety-three had the other story written. 'They're gonna lose. You can't do it. Cal doesn't care about Kentucky or basketball, college, he's just trying to get guys to the NBA. This is bad for [college basketball].’ But we won, and we won big with a young team. And Julius [Randle] didn't play the second half! So they couldn't write the story. So seven were written."
  • Of course, the big story Tuesday afternoon was far more serious than any slinging of taunts: UTEP dismissed three players for gambling on athletic events, though the school claimed there was no evidence of point-shaving or betting on Miners games following an FBI investigation. Leading scorer McKenzie Moore and reserves Jalen Ragland and Justin Crosgile received automatic one-year suspensions and will also lose a year of eligibility.
  • In case you missed it, Grinnell’s Patrick Maher broke the NCAA record with 37 assists in a game Monday night. Jack Taylor didn’t play. Your joke goes here.
  • Wisconsin survived last season despite the early loss of senior guard Josh Gasser; it is thriving with him.
  • The Chicago Bulls’ trade of Luol Deng for the ghost of Andrew Bynum’s contract (or: cap relief and picks!) didn’t just make your humble author’s morning. (We’ll always love ya, Lu. But it was time.) It also caused Northwestern center Chier Ajou, Deng’s cousin, to transfer.

Video: No. 5 Michigan State 73, Indiana 56

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4

Gary Harris scored 26 points to lead No. 5 Michigan State past Indiana 73-56.