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COLUMN: The best team on the floor

In a game Michigan was more than willing to make "physical," according to Tom Crean, Christian Watford (right) and the Hoosiers stepped up and outplayed Michigan for 40 minutes, taking down No. 1.

Cody Zeller might have fouled Nik Stauskas hauling in the offensive rebound that effectively sealed No. 3 Indiana’s 81-73 win Saturday night. Honestly, he probably did.

But in a game repeatedly described by IU coach Tom Crean as “physical,” Zeller’s willingness to fly headlong toward his bench and through Stauskas’ shoulder illustrated well why Indiana took down No. 1 Michigan.

“That loose-ball rebound, that’s why he’s such a special player,” Crean said afterward. That loose-ball rebound, and the rest of the winning basketball Indiana played Saturday, is why Indiana is once again the nation’s No. 1 team.

Indiana badly needed Saturday’s win, whereas Michigan simply wanted it pretty badly, and it showed in the Hoosiers’ ability to force the game to be played their way.

Michigan was one of least-whistled teams in the country, but the Hoosiers shot 20 second-half free throws and drew 19 total fouls from a team averaging just 11.7 committer per game at tipoff.

The Wolverines are devastatingly efficient offensively, yet they shot 42.9 percent from the floor, got next to nothing from their primary role players and did not lead for the final 38:46.

Trey Burke, perhaps the nation’s best player, had to take 24 shots — and 12 3-pointers — to score 25 points, sheering away valuable possessions for the road team.

Stubborn and focused, Indiana outplayed Michigan for 40 minutes, correcting its mistakes and adjusting when it needed to.

Yogi Ferrell gave way to Will Sheehey in defending Burke, and Sheehey then passed the sophomore point guard off to Victor Oladipo. Indiana as a team outrebounded the Wolverines, who seemed bent upon bruising an IU squad that has, at times, been called too soft for its lofty ambitions this season. Christian Watford, many times an offender in the lack-of-rebounding-fortitude department, fought his way to 10 boards, nine of them coming on the offensive end.

There was a sense coming into this game that if Indiana won — a result by no means guaranteed — it would be because of its distinct home-court advantage, because Assembly Hall is loud enough to mask its team’s flaws. Indiana proved that quite untrue on Saturday night.

“Yea, it’s one of our best (games),” Oladipo said afterward. “We played solid. We came together when things were getting tight.”

Michigan is supremely talented and outfitted with enough weapons to make a serious run at both a Big Ten title and a national championship, but the Wolverines were outmaneuvered and outplayed in a game they never led after losing a 3-2 advantage barely more than a minute into the first half.

The Hoosiers did better that which they needed to, winning all of the battles within a game of this kind that tip the scales one way or the other at the final buzzer. There was only one deserved winner Saturday night, and though IU players and coaches can praise their fans’ support to no end, it was not because of sold-out crowds or record noise.

On this night, at home, Indiana was the best team in the best conference in the country. As in their home victory last weekend against Michigan State, the Hoosiers absorbed run after run and just kept executing, like a team that’s learning how to win at an elite level.

Indiana will be No. 1 on Monday, barring something unforeseen, but it is no longer the team that began the season with that ranking. Saturday night proved as much.

The Hoosiers are far more focused and more able to defend those ambitions. It’s not clear if they are the best team in the country, but they are better than they were when last they held that distinction.

“We started there, and we’ve had a hard road to get back here, but again, we just take it one game at a time,” Oladipo said of returning to the No. 1 ranking. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and we’re just gonna keep working.”

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