A handful of observations from IU-Michigan and the rest of Saturday night's college hoops action:
Indiana and Michigan just played the best game of the year.
No, it didn't end with a buzzer-beater finish. But that was the only thing it lacked. In every other possible way, this game was big-time college hoops at its finest, two top-five teams with a handful of pros between them duking it out in front of a completely insane crowd, countering excellent defense with even better offense, fighting for every possession, dunking the ball in high-style frequently, with not only an eventual Big Ten title but crucial NCAA tournament positioning on the line.
It was, to sum it as succinctly as possible, awesome. It was college basketball at its best.
The Hoosiers won, as they have so often since their resurrection last season under coach Tom Crean, with superbly efficient offense. IU finished with 81 points on 50 shots; it shot 52 percent from the field, 38.9 percent from 3 and -- perhaps most impressively -- 22 of 25 from the free throw line. Those free throws were especially handy as IU closed out the game late, because Michigan never went away. Indiana started out as hot as possible in the first half, but Trey Burke kept the Wolverines in the game, and his 25-foot-plus first-half buzzer-beating 3 closed what had been a 15-point lead to just 36-32 at the half. The Wolverines got more balanced scoring from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas in the second half, and they hung tough throughout, but the relentless onslaught of the Hoosiers -- particularly Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller (who finished with 19 points and nine rebounds on 8-for-10 from the field), who crashed the glass for a seemingly endless barrage of tip dunks and putbacks -- paired with the reliable free throw shooting to hold on to the lead and the 81-73 victory down the stretch.
The loss may be considered something of a blown opportunity for Michigan -- Hardaway and Stauskas shot the ball poorly, and for everything good Burke did, he still finished nine of 24 and four of 12 from 3. Michigan entered Saturday with the most efficient offense in the country, but at Assembly Hall it took 70 shots to score 73 points, including an uncharacteristic seven of 23 from long range. The Wolverines also committed an unusual number of fouls, which allowed all those IU free throws. Michigan averages just 11 fouls per game, and its opponents typically shoot the lowest ratio of free throws to field goals in the country (20.1 percent). The Hoosiers' mark was more than 45 percent Saturday night, and it is hard to beat IU when it goes to the line that often.
Despite all that, and despite the Hoosiers' impressive interior work, UM was still very much in the game down the stretch. If you're John Beilein, you don't go away from that rowdy Assembly Hall environment feeling bad about your team's effort, or even its performance. You make a few more shots -- including open looks throughout the first half -- and you might just walk away with a win.
Whatever the result ended up being, this was an incredible game. It was one great play after another. It was a freaky crowd jacked on adrenaline and who knows what else. It was Oladipo flying down the lane; it was Zeller crashing the glass. It was Burke finding answers where none seemed to exist; it was Michigan scrapping for every bucket in the second half. The Wolverines tied it at 40 at the 17:32 mark in the second half. At that point, anything could have happened. All I knew was that it was going to be great.
It didn't disappoint. Not one bit.
You want to know the best part? These two teams run it back in Ann Arbor on March 10 -- in the final Big Ten game of the season. The only downside is that March 10 isn't tomorrow.
Other thoughts on tonight's games:
Florida keeps rolling. If you were expecting the Florida Gators to cool off, or suffer a defensive lapse, or fall victim to a ranked SEC opponent at home, think again. Not these Gators. Not right now. While most of the nation awaited Michigan-Indiana -- and rightfully so, because how great was that -- UF continued to build its case as the best team in the country right now. There is no one true star for Florida. Instead, the Gators get you with balance -- they had four starters in double figures Saturday -- which allows them to space the floor, run Billy Donovan's ball-screen offense to near perfection, and get good shots everywhere. What makes this team different is that the Gators are just as good, if not better, on the defensive end -- their Achilles' heel in recent seasons. Indiana and Michigan got the bright lights Saturday night, but Florida is just as good as either.
Kentucky may finally be rounding into shape. Look, the Wildcats still aren't pretty, and they are hardly dominating some of the SEC's more mediocre competition. But they are holding on to big wins on the road, and that's a serious improvement from where they were even a month ago. On Saturday, it was a 72-68 overtime victory at Texas A&M -- a team that beat the Wildcats in their own place just a few weeks ago -- but earlier this week it was an even more impressive victory at Ole Miss. There are still plenty of things the Wildcats can clean up, but it'd be foolish to overlook their improvement. Oh, and while we're on the topic, it'd be equally foolish to ignore how well Nerlens Noel is playing. Noel, who had 12 blocks at Ole Miss, notched 19 points and 14 rebounds, along with 4 assists, 2 blocks, a steal and a handful of other deflections and challenged shots. Noel faced brutal expectations at the beginning of the season, and he'll never be Anthony Davis. But being Noel is pretty darn good, too.
Iowa State is quietly putting together a decent NCAA tournament résumé. Beating Baylor at home is, in and of itself, not all that big of a deal. But in the context of Iowa State's season, it is. On Jan. 23, the Cyclones suffered a baffling loss at Texas Tech, but since then they've beaten Kansas State at home, played Oklahoma State to within two points on the road, and handled Baylor on Saturday, 79-71. This is still a team on the bubble, but it's one that is slowly but surely putting together some of the wins it needed in Big 12 play.
Temple, on the other hand, may be sliding. I'm not sure if there's a more confounding team in the country than the Temple Owls. In mid-December, the Owls lost at home to Canisius, and followed that up with a neutral-court win over Syracuse. Then they challenged -- really challenged -- Kansas on its own floor. Since then, they've played well in spurts and poorly in spurts, and they've won games we thought they should lose (home over Saint Louis) and lost games we thought they should win (home vs. St. Bonaventure). In and of itself, Saturday's 70-69 loss at Saint Joseph's is hardly terrible; the Hawks were the preseason Atlantic 10 favorite, after all. But they've been just as inconsistent, and Temple has shown few signs of putting all of that Syracuse/Kansas stuff together into a consistent, nightly package. Can it still? I'm starting to have serious doubts.
The Mountain West remains wild. How good is the Mountain West? Consider this: Air Force, probably the league's sixth-best team, upset San Diego State 70-67 at home Saturday to move to -- wait for it -- 5-2 in conference play, tied for second with Colorado State. Meanwhile, Boise State took down UNLV, 77-72. Despite its success in conference play (which includes an OT loss at UNLV, mind you), it would be difficult to make a case for Air Force as an NCAA tournament bubble team at the moment. Boise, on the other hand, is very much in the at-large picture, what with tonight's victory and that huge nonconference win at Creighton, which will keep paying dividends as the bubble conversation intensifies in the coming weeks. If BSU keeps knocking the league's best teams off, the Mountain West could end up with five or as many as six NCAA tournament bids -- not too shabby for a league with just nine teams.
One final note on the Hoosiers: Oladipo and Zeller each had their impressive athletic plays, but the best of the night were two that won't show up on the box score. The first was a lob thrown way behind Oladipo, to the point that his even catching the ball was physically miraculous. But Oladipo did catch it with one hand, grasping it way behind his head as he soared through the air toward the bucket. He cocked it back, and the ball careened off the rim -- it was an impossible play. Had that play gone in, Assembly Hall would have collapsed. A horrifying spectacle would have ensued. It was like that. The second came at the end of the game, when both teams were walking off. Instead of dribbling the clock out, Oladipo called for the pass, sprinted downcourt and unloaded a windmill walk-off dunk worthy of any dunk contest. It was probably not the best sportsmanship, and Crean gave Oladipo a serious stare before his postgame handshake with Beilein -- Victor will be running sprints for that, rest assured. But it was also kind of awesome. Just like the rest of that game.