Indiana hoops, we’ve missed you.

Christian Watford and VJ III have waited for this moment for three years.

The IU vs. Kentucky game was an instant classic. Three years of no postseason appearances but Indiana is back in the mix again and this is good for several reasons.

Ramblings by DJ

“Why is everyone so into this game?? Indiana isn’t even ranked!”

Most recreational fans of college hoops at a sports bar in Chicago would have asked this question on Saturday afternoon as the crowd went ape!@#& after Christian Watford swished a three at the buzzer against Kentucky. Everybody loves a buzzer beater even if you only watch a total of 20 minutes of hoops all year long but this game had other reasons which justified the hype. Dickie V doesn’t make trips out nowadays to call games for ESPN unless it involves Duke, UNC or a game at Madison Square Garden. The Jared Sullinger-less Ohio State @ Kansas game wasn’t a fair matchup due to the injury, so most college hoops fanatics tuned into ESPN for the most intriguing game of Saturday … Kentucky @ Indiana.

Why was it a big game?

1. Patience: This word best describes the trait of the IU hoops fanatic since 2007. I am not part of the Hoosier nation but as an outsider it seems to be that the fans have been extremely patient with the rebuilding process after the Kelvin Sampson mess. Three years of no big wins on the national stage except for Pitt and Illinois (probably shouldn’t even be considered a “big” win!). Programs with a winning pedigree such as Indiana don’t put up with three years of no postseason or remotely being a factor in conference play. This is coming from an Illini fan who is upset that Bruce Weber hasn’t been able to get the team past the 2nd round in March in over four years. And he didn’t even have any probations or sanctions to deal with.

There might have been several whispers or open emotions about the need for change at the coaching ranks but the frustrations have been fairly well controlled by this program for the most part, at least as shown by the national media. Remember when Matt Doherty had two sub-par seasons in UNC in the early ’00s? Heck, think about last year when the Roy Williams’ squad didn’t look postseason ready in December as they came off an NIT appearance. Chaos was ready to break out in Tar Heel nation but the Indiana folks have been very patient over the last few years. But this game was circled. Especially after an 8-0 start … the fans were patient, they got up for this game and they deserved every bit of that exciting finish. This win was a reward for their patience.

2. Curiosity: Butler has been the best team in Indiana over the last two years if you factor in their postseason performances. Tom Crean’s boys handled them at home a couple weeks ago. Beat an in-state rival at home … check. That win was followed by another impressive shellacking on the road at North Carolina State. Beat a mediocre team on their home court comfortably … check. Win every other game during the non-conference schedule … check. Hoosiers were 8-0 entering the game.

As the IU fan base patiently waited for this game, everybody else approached this matchup with curiosity. They were curious to see how IU would handle Kentucky’s raw athletes. They wanted to see if the 8-0 start was legitimate and if IU can handle business on the home court against a potential national championship contender.

Obviously, the whole state of Indiana cleared their schedules on 5 PM Saturday and they needed this win. But my biggest reason for rooting for Indiana, not just this game but the entire season is very simple … the Big Ten needs Indiana to be relevant again. My fellow Illini fans love to see Indiana basketball at the bottom of the pile of irrelevance but I certainly am not one of them. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State have been the three faces of Big Ten basketball on the national stage for the past four seasons. But we need Indiana. Why??

Wisconsin and Ohio State don’t quite have the hoops history built up yet, they might in about fifteen years but they are still the new kids on the block within the top 15 landscape. Indiana has the history … and that’s about all they have right now, unless they come back this season. The media needs the history quotient to be strong if it were to truly focus on a program with coverage. Having Indiana in the top 25 will help the Big Ten and restore more credibility to a conference in terms of recruiting even though it hasn’t produced a national champion in 11 years. This is why the conference needs Indiana to come back to relevance and the win on Saturday is a sign that the program might be turning the corner. Other signs that indicate a strong season for IU are its core group of players … let’s examine them briefly.

Cody Zeller

Zeller’s acceptance letter might have bought Tom Crean a couple seasons in Bloomington. Hometown Indiana boy trying to revive the program after a slump … might as well give him a jersey with “Chitwood” written on the back. But he has turned out to be as good as advertised so far. He might not overpower you in the paint but he has held his own. Anthony Davis is no slouch in terms of length and Zeller played within the game plan on Saturday by holding his own against Davis. 11 points and 7 boards against a LONG Kentucky frontcourt in the 9th game of his college career is pretty solid.

Looking ahead into the Big Ten season, Zeller’s dominance in the paint is inevitable. Save for Sullinger from Ohio State or Michigan State’s Adrian Payne, the conference lacks legit size in the paint this year. Once again, my fellow Illini are high on Meyers Leonard but I don’t think he can stay out of foul trouble against true post players especially when he faces the physical plan within the conference. Zeller’s development is a HUGE advantage for Indiana in conference play.

Creek is out but Oladipo/Sheehey are picking up the slack.

Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo

When Maurice Creek went down for the whole season, the main question out there about this team was the athleticism. Zeller had good moves in the paint but you won’t be awed with this raw athleticism. Was there anybody who can break the opposing guards off the dribble when needed?

Victor Oladipo’s dunk in the 2nd half off the crossover answers all of the above questions. He brings the slashing component to this offense and it showed on Saturday. Oladipo along with another sophomore, Will Sheehey give this offense multiple scoring options. If both of them combine for 15-20 points every game, it should ease up the pressure off the veteran guards.

Christian Watford and Verdell Jones

The fans weren’t the only ones patient over the past two seasons? Verdell Jones and Watford stuck through the thin with Tom Crean. They faced double teams repeatedly b/c there was a major dearth of other scorers on this squad. VJ III prefers to control the tempo and seems to be much more comfortable in the half court setting with the ball in his hands. Watford has a grasp on this offense and his three point shot has the consistency that will give most Big Ten team fits during conference play.

With Oladipo and Zeller picking up the scoring for most of the game, these two veteran guards can control the game in the last eight minutes of a game. The last play on Saturday was exemplary of these guards’ experience and how it was executed to perfection. Except for Wisconsin, you won’t find an experienced backcourt that can challenge these two guys in conference play … another reason for continued optimism this season.

So this team is poised for a top 5 seed, right? Sweet 16 for sure? Is Indiana “back??” The range of expectations for this team this year is very wide. But Saturday’s win proves one point and it should be a good indicator of their chances of making the postseason tournament with a decent seed.

Indiana is tough to beat in Assembly Hall.

They showed some signs of the home court advantage during the 2nd half of last season but the players are finally here … and ready. There are nine home games and seven wins is definitely possible … which means that they need to pick up two to three on the road during Big Ten play. Penn State and Iowa aren’t the strongest teams so nine or ten wins in conference play is not out of question.

Does this mean Tom Crean gets an extension? Will they get a top five seed in the tournament? Can they clean up the non-conference season? There are several questions left to be answered but all of this means something good for this program and the Big Ten. The historical powerhouse is making its way back and this is great for college hoops …

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