It's simple logic, right? After nearly two months of top-10 purgatory, the Hoosiers (20-2) should return atop the college basketball mountain.
Sure, No. 4 Florida (17-2) could make a push given it is 8-0 in the mediocre SEC, but that's not likely. The Big Ten is the nation's best conference and IU has proven, to the halfway point, that it is the best of the best.
Until the next test — Thursday at Illinois.
Beating Michigan 81-73 Saturday night showcased all that is right with the Hoosiers — the balanced scoring (five players in double figures, led by Cody Zeller's 19), the relentless rebounding (a 38-29 edge with Zeller and Christian Watford both grabbing 10), the ruthless attacking of the basket that produces a nation-leading free throw advantage (IU was 22-for-25 to Michigan's 6-for-7) and, of course, the full-throttle approach that makes it all possible.
IU is wiser from its first run at No. 1, which lasted from last April until the mid-December overtime loss to Butler. It will not, guard Victor Oladipo said, change the Hoosiers' approach.
“We'll play like we've been playing,” he said. “We're playing with a chip on our shoulder. We've played with a chip on our shoulder since I got here. We'll continue to do that. We'll continue getting better, keep playing for each other and staying with each other.”
The Hoosiers weren't flawless. They turned it over more times than Ray Lewis denied using deer antler spray, 16 times in all, twice as many as they had three days earlier at Purdue. They blew a 15-point first half lead, nearly blew an 11-point second-half edge.
But that's just nit-picking. Michigan wasn't No. 1 without reason. The Wolverines (20-2) forced mistakes, then capitalized. They will be hard to handle in next month's rematch in Ann Arbor.
But that's getting WAY ahead of ourselves.
Today's top ranking can disappear in an instant, as it has for IU, Duke, Louisville, Michigan, and even Kansas if you count the coaches' poll. It is, in fact, the fourth straight week the No. 1 team lost, which reflects the parity of today's game and the wide-open certainty of the upcoming NCAA tourney.
IU coach Tom Crean understands that. The Hoosiers lost to Butler in Indianapolis and Wisconsin at Assembly Hall, but that didn't alter his perception of his team's potential.
“We were picked No. 1 back in April, but we hadn't done anything,” he said. “All of a sudden, when you lose, it was like, how did you lose? We picked you No. 1.
“That's not what they play for. That's great (to be No. 1). They are learning those things are nice, but you play to improve. You play to be good enough to win a game like this. You play to be able to make adjustments and play through some mistakes and deal with some adversity and grow up in a game. That's what is most important.
“I don't get the sense these guys are locked into those rankings at all. When we weren't No. 1, they know what was said. They can feel all that. Were we any worse because we lost by two (in overtime to Butler)? We didn't play that great that day. It wasn't like the sky was falling. We had to make sure they understood that.”
So now IU has the Big Ten lead with an 8-1 record. Right behind with 7-2 records are Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Right behind them is Wisconsin (5-3). In the coming weeks the Hoosiers will play Ohio State twice, and Michigan and Michigan State once.
They control their own destiny. They can prove the merit to their ranking and all the hype. They can win the national title that has eluded the program since 1987.
“When a team loses sight of the most important thing of how they play together and how they improve together, then you have issues,” Crean said. “We don't plan to have any issues. We plan on making sure we stay locked into that and not let any of the nice things or negative things become a driving force. It's all part of the game.
“These guys have figured out that if they're not improving, A) somebody else in the program will and B) all these other teams are improving. So we have to be.”
Crean will give the Hoosiers a day off to think about that. He's heading to New Orleans and the Super Bowl to watch his brothers-in-law — Baltimore's John Harbaugh and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh — battle for the NFL's top prize.
They succeed, he said, because of team over everything else.
If the Hoosiers buy into that, everything else falls into place.
Up nextTipoff: Indiana at Illinois, 7 p.m. Thursday night
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