Perhaps it's difficult for a game burdened with the weight of expectations years in the making to live up to the hype, to qualify as an all-time classic, to qualify as "great." Great has differing definitions, and this was no all-time classic, but in an imperfect season of college basketball, No. 3 Indiana's win over No. 1 Michigan sure seems to have qualified as great.
It wasn't the best played game of the season, but it lived up to the expectation of being the biggest.
Sure, it was sloppy, with Indiana and Michigan both lapsing into periods of poor shot selection. Both went through runs and droughts – Indiana scored 18 points in the first four and a half minutes, then later in the half went nearly five minutes without a bucket – and Michigan spent much of the night playing catch-up. There were only a few moments of back-and-forth basketball in which the score was close, the most notable of which came at the end of the first half, when Trey Burke followed a monster Cody Zeller put-back dunk with a three just before the halftime buzzer to cut the Hoosiers' lead to four. There have been better played college basketball games this season. There have certainly been more exciting finishes, as Michigan was too far behind in the final minute for its three-point prayers to be answered.
But good luck finding many games that match the entertainment value of Saturday night's 81-73 Indiana win in front of an electric atmosphere at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, a fast-paced matchup of two historically strong programs that went through rough patches over the last decade, a coronation for the Big Ten as the best conference in the land. It's not a boring league; it's a league in which two teams can take bad shots and still combine for 154 points.
Breakout 2013 star Victor Oladipo dazzled, first with a juke past Tim Hardaway Jr., a quick burst through the lane and a dunk; and later with one of the best missed dunks you'll ever see when he nearly connected on an off-the-mark alley-oop. Zeller proved that last week's mini slump was an aberration, scoring 19 points for the second straight game, this time making eight of 10 field goals and also coming up with what may be the game's clinching play when he hustled to run down a loose ball out toward midcourt to allow Indiana to keep possession with under two minutes to play and Indiana up seven. And, as always, Michigan's Burke had his brilliant moments, finishing with 25 points and eight assists as part of a Wolverines transition offense that looks like it's coached by Chip Kelly.
Alas, the flaw of John Beilein's teams is an overreliance on three-pointers. There were some errant attempts, and ultimately Michigan shot only 7-for-23 from long range. The Wolverines were occasionally brilliant in transition, but too often they failed to get off a good shot, and despite the difficulty opposing teams have putting away an efficient team that likes to run, like Michigan, Indiana and its two All-America candidates proved too much to handle.
On a day in which the AP and coaches' polls both lost their No. 1 teams – coaches' No. 1 Kansas dropped a tight home game to Oklahoma State – Indiana made a strong case for its return to the top spot in polls by beating the AP's No. 1. If nothing else, its quality wins best those of Florida, which has refused to stoop to the low level of play in the rest of the SEC, decimating everyone else in the conference by double digits. Saturday's win over Ole Miss was the Gators' closest in league play, by a margin of 14 points.
There is no all-time great team in this college basketball season, certainly no Kentucky of last March. So it's not surprising that two of the top three teams in the polls put their flaws on display Saturday night, given the flaws of all the top teams, and ultimately it appears likely that both Michigan and Indiana will earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament anyway. They're beatable, but they're the best. Tom Crean and John Beilein have built loaded rosters filled with some of the most talented players in the country. Name Oladipo, Zeller and Burke all first-team All-Americans, and nobody is going to complain.
Maybe Indiana can use Saturday to propel itself to another level; maybe everything will click. The talent is certainly there, from Zeller and Oladipo at the top, down through a starting lineup that finished with all five players in double figures. Crean, like his brother-in-law Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, has rebuilt a proud program into a power, and his Hoosiers have as good of a chance as anyone to cut down the nets in Atlanta in April.
The difference between good and great is all just semantics anyway. Look at the context. Saturday proved that, in a year filled with lots of very good, Indiana is as close as any to great. The Hoosiers may not be perfect, but after years of stress and unexpected failure, just four years removed from a dreadful 6-25 record, beating No. 1 Michigan surely felt like greatness. That's all that really matters in the moment.