The Indiana Hoosiers are about to embark on a very challenging portion of their schedule. It begins Tuesday night at Michigan State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), and also includes road games at Minnesota and Michigan, and home games versus Iowa and Ohio State. So what I'm about to say, and more specifically its timing, may seem questionable, but here goes: The Hoosiers are clearly the best team in the nation's best conference.
To this point in the season Tom Crean's men have outscored conference opponents by 0.21 points per possession, a margin that moves IU to the head of the class in a loaded Big Ten. Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana's two nearest rivals in performance, are outscoring the league by 0.13 and 0.11 points per possession, respectively. That's a much bigger gap than you might have guessed if you simply looked at each team's record -- IU is 23-3, while both Michigan schools are a game behind at 22-4. The Hoosiers and Spartans share identical Big Ten-best 11-2 conference records.
Certainly having two players prominently mentioned as Wooden Award candidates has benefited the Hoosiers. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo merit every accolade they've received, and then some. Combined they've made a remarkable 63 percent of their 405 shot attempts inside the arc, and they've preoccupied opposing defenses to such an extent that Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey are all having career seasons on offense. (In a sense, I suppose freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell is also having a "career" season, or at least a very good one.)
Not since Jon Diebler and David Lighty were teaming with a freshman named Jared Sullinger at Ohio State in 2010-11 have we seen a Big Ten team sink shots this reliably, and the Hoosiers are getting it done from both sides of the arc. That, plus a free throw rate that dwarfs that of any other team in the conference, has allowed IU to transcend its well-documented (but still relatively manageable) struggles with turnovers.
But as good as Indiana has been on offense -- and they may be the best team in the nation on that side of the ball -- the real story has been on defense. It's after taking a look at the Hoosiers' performance at that end of the floor that you begin to see why the "best team in the Big Ten" debate isn't even close.