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Monday, December 12, 2011
Brennan's five observations from the week

By Eamonn Brennan

Before we begin a new week of games, here are five thoughts from the past seven days:

1. Indiana is back. Consider this statistic: IU hasn't been ranked since March 10, 2008. That's, count 'em, 1,372 days -- the longest stretch in school history -- that the Hoosiers have existed outside the realm of college basketball relevance. Those days appear to be over. For IU fans, the inclusion will be deeply symbolic: Since 2008, when Kelvin Sampson's disgraced exit left Indiana with a crater where its basketball program once was, those fans have dealt with frustration and angst and nearly constant failure, at times wondering if the program would ever be relevant again. After Saturday's win over Kentucky, it is.

Is it just one win? Sure. But whatever happens with the rest of Indiana's season -- an NCAA tournament berth looks like a lock now -- IU still has a daunting Big Ten schedule to fight through first. It's clear Tom Crean has not only rebuilt this program but reinvigorated a long-dormant fan base. It's been a long time coming, more than 1,300 days, to be exact, but IU fans finally have something tangible to get excited about.

2. Kentucky will be fine. If you examined the game closely, there were plenty of reasons to be concerned with UK's performance. Its young players seemed genuinely rattled by IU's hyped-up home environment. Forward Anthony Davis committed a series of silly fouls and missed most of the game in return. Forward Terrence Jones mentally checked out. Guard Marquis Teague was shaky for much of the first half. All of these are valid mini-criticisms, but if Big Blue fans are feeling slightly freaked out, they shouldn't be. This Wildcats team is still very, very talented, and right now its mistakes -- dumb fouls, lack of focus, turnovers, broken set plays -- are of the youthful variety.

Few teams in the country would have played a composed, controlled game in Saturday's atmosphere, and when you consider that Kentucky was able to come back and nearly win the game on a day in which Davis rarely played and Jones was never his typical self, well, that's impressive in its own right. The Cats may lose a few games on the road. They may make a few dumb mistakes here and there. But don't worry too much, UK fans. This team will be just fine.

3. Ohio State might still deserve to be No. 1. That might seem unfair to Syracuse, which was ranked No. 3 in the poll last week and didn't lose in the week that followed. But it's hard to take too much out of OSU's loss at Kansas for a variety of reasons. For one, it was at Kansas -- one of the most difficult places to play in the country. Second, and most important, the Buckeyes were forced to play without star forward Jared Sullinger, who missed the game thanks to back spasms. For those reasons, it's hard to count this game against Ohio State. When at full strength, the Bucks have looked as good, or better, than any team in the country.

4. Michigan State just might be "back" too. Don't look now, but the Spartans just got another quality win, this time on the road at No. 22 Gonzaga, where most high-major foes never dare tread. Tom Izzo didn't shy away from the road challenge, and MSU emerged with a victory on the strength of a career-high 34-point effort from star forward Draymond Green. Thus far this season, Michigan State has lost to two teams, Duke and North Carolina, and handily beaten physically-imposing Florida State. Izzo's team has done so thanks to a reversal of identity, a return to the hard-charging, rebounding and defensive toughness that has became the hallmark of this program throughout his tenure. That identity was lost last season, as Michigan State barely made the tournament and limped to a lackluster finish. It appears to be back in full force this season.

5. Ben Howland finally got it right. Would you trade jobs with this guy? Any other season, that answer is an unequivocal yes. In 2011-12, with the losses piling up and the Reeves Nelson-turmoil threatening to undermine an entire season, Howland's job is hardly an enviable one. In the end, the coach made the right call in dismissing Nelson from the team. His squad may suffer for it. Nelson was this team's most productive player last season, his toughness and competitive fire would have been an identity-builder for UCLA, the way it was when Nelson became a fan favorite early in his career. But it had to be done. These kinds of calls aren't easy. They aren't simple. Howland no doubt wanted to help Nelson. He also didn't want to weaken his already-struggling team. (In other words, he doesn't want to, you know, lose.) But in the end, after a few too many weeks of deliberation and forgiveness, Howland made the right decision. He deserves credit for that much at least.