It was going to be a party, and it was going to be epic.
On senior night in Bloomington, Ind., the Indiana Hoosiers would have a little gathering. Seventeen thousand of their closest friends were invited. The agenda was simple. First, the Hoosiers would go out and do what they usually do in Assembly Hall: They would win, and easily so, and in the process would become the first IU team to win the outright Big Ten title since 1993. Then, in the hazy postgame afterglow, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston would walk onto the floor with their parents and hug their coaches and give their heartfelt senior farewell toasts, and very few eyes in the building would stay dry. For sheer symbolic weight, the Hoosiers couldn't have planned the night better if they tried.
Which is right about when Ohio State barged in the door, shattered the speaker system, flipped over the beer pong table and -- before anyone knew what was happening -- strutted out the front door, smiling all the way.
The Buckeyes crashed the party. Led by Aaron Craft's all-court performance (15 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals), his pair of crucial, timely late buckets, and a defense that smothered and outmuscled the most efficient scoring group in the country, the Buckeyes won 67-58 in Bloomington, in one of the most brazen road performances by any team in any environment anywhere this season.
Ohio State made all the big plays: Craft's banked-in jumper as the shot clock expired with 5:45 to play; Deshaun Thomas's pick-and-pop 3 to put Ohio State up 59-50 at the 4:24 mark; block after block and steal after steal in the second half; Shannon Scott's strip of national player of the year favorite Victor Oladipo; Craft's wrong-footed fadeaway jumper that put the game totally out of reach for Indiana in the final 90 seconds.
And -- if such a thing exists -- Ohio State made all the small plays, too. Its defensive rotations were mechanical in their precision. Its interior strength was too much to handle. The Buckeyes got in passing lanes and slid over on Indiana's drives and hurried the nation's best offense into forced attempts, eight steals, seven blocks and 12 total turnovers. Everything was challenged. Everything was difficult.
IU fans will no doubt question the officiating, which in part allowed Ohio State its physical edge on the defensive end, particularly late in the game. And Hoosiers die-hards might also (rightfully) question why IU played ineffective reserve role players such as Maurice Creek and Jeremy Hollowell extended minutes deep into the second half. But such complaints vary in their validity, and anyway, they miss the point: Ohio State deserved to win. The Hoosiers were pounded into submission.
The next question is obvious: What does it all mean? I'm glad you asked.
It means Ohio State filled the one and only gap on its otherwise sterling NCAA tournament résumé -- the lack of a quality road win. The Buckeyes, with their top-30 RPI and SOS marks, have been a tournament lock for weeks. They've toppled Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Minnesota in Columbus, and they've yet to lose a game to a team ranked outside the RPI top 50. But before Tuesday night, their best road win came at either Purdue or Nebraska (take your pick). The Buckeyes' CV has zero holes now.
It means Ohio State might just be elite after all. It's not like Ohio State wasn't held in high regard before Tuesday night. It's just that the regard was predictable, almost staid. Ohio State was good enough to beat teams it should beat, particularly at home, but not good enough to reach up into the top five or the top 10 and knock off the true national title contenders. The Buckeyes' defense was always going to show up, but their lack of a second scorer to complement Thomas, their lack of a real offensive punch, would hold them back. If there is any impression to take away from Tuesday night in Bloomington, it's this: If Ohio State defends like that, it can beat just about anybody.
It could cause you to feel a lot less safe picking Indiana to progress to Atlanta in your Final Four bracket. This would not be unjustified, but not for the reasons you think. After all, it's not like Indiana just got worse. None of its flaws (frequent turnovers, atrocious defensive rebounding and shot-blocking) are particularly new. If you regard Indiana differently, it should be because on Tuesday night IU -- at least according to EPSN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi -- lost its No. 1 overall seed and possibly its ability to play its potential second-weekend tournament games in Indianapolis. Hoosiers fans travel, and they'll show up just about anywhere for a Sweet 16. But it's hard to overstate the importance of playing what could essentially be home games for the right to join the Final Four.
It means Indiana has to go on the road to Ann Arbor, Mich. -- to play a Michigan team that will need to win to get its own share of the prize -- with its outright conference title hopes on the line.
It means Sunday's Indiana-Michigan game just got even more important, and it means we get to watch that game. This is awesome.
One thing's for sure: This wasn't the ending Indiana envisioned. There would have been few better things than hanging a singular conference title banner for the first time in 20 years on senior night; the party was going to be rocking.
Instead, Ohio State crashed the party in fine, brassy fashion. With a pretty fall-back jumper iced, Aaron Craft smiled on his way out the door. Now Indiana has to clean up the mess.