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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Indiana’s Christian Watford and Michigan State’s Branden Dawson battle for a rebound Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich.

IU proves it’s the best in the land

– You can see how this happens now, as Victor Oladipo buries the last two nails. You can see the deep run. See the March into Madness. See, yes, a sixth banner, swaying gently in the air currents at the top of Assembly Hall.

Think that’s just the happy raving of some Bobbyhead in a throwback Uwe Blab jersey, six or seven beers deep into his evening?

Think it probably won’t happen … probably can’t, just yet … probably is a dream destined to be deferred once more?

Well, here is Oladipo, then, dropping one free throw and then another to finally end it Tuesday night. Here is Indiana 72, Michigan State 68, No. 1 over No. 4, on as big a stage as college buckets will give us until March.

Indiana got history and a Tom Izzo team in the heart of its wheelhouse – late February, with the Izzone at full howl and the Big Ten lead on the line – and it shrugged off both, winning when losing would have been as simple as breathing. It won despite not having won here since Tom Crean was a 24-year-old assistant at Western Kentucky. It won despite trailing 67-63 with 1:37 left, after leading for almost 15 minutes of the first half and the lion’s share of the second half.

“They came into our place, where we should be 10 points better, and controlled a large part of the game. They outplayed us,” said Izzo, and that was only the truth.

“Great win against a great team,” Crean said, and that was the truth, too.

And if for most of this season there really hasn’t been a No. 1 team, there is now. You saw it in the last 1:37, when Indiana held Michigan State to a single point while Christian Watford was driving for a bucket and the free throw, and Oladipo was muscling inside to tip in a miss, and Watford was spotting Oladipo going deep on an inbounds run-out.

Hit him in stride behind the defense, like Montana finding Rice. Dunk. Three-point lead for Indiana with 10 seconds left. Ballgame.

There was toughness in that sequence, and resilience and intelligence. There was the sort of calm center you need to win in March, where every game’s a road game. There was one more presentation of a case that gets stronger with every game, from a team that has now won six of seven roadies in the Big Ten and is 4 for 4 against teams ranked in the top 10.

Sounds like a résumé that can get all the way to Final One, let alone the Final Four.

“When you’re playing games like this, it’s not just about how tough you are, it’s about how smart you are,” Crean said. “Statistics aside, we have a mature team. A smart team.”

And?

“And (tonight) they just had great courage,” Crean said.

A lot of that flowed from Oladipo, who figured he was “85 percent” with the gimpy ankle but went for 19 points and nine rebounds and five assists and five steals anyway. But you saw it in Cody Zeller, too, who knocked down a rare mid-range jumper to start and went on to a 17-point, five-rebound, two-block night. You saw it in Watford and Jordan Hulls and a team that stared dead into the Izzone white-out and jarred eight of its last 15 threes.

No. 1 played like No. 1, in other words. And that’s saying something this season.

“We had plenty of bulletin board material tonight, with all these guys picking against us,” Crean said. “But we didn’t win because of any motivation. We didn’t win because of any comments. We won because our guys played with great determination and great toughness.”

Only the truth again.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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