COLUMBUS, Ohio — Evan Ravenel was, to put it plainly, impressed with Indiana. The Hoosiers outhustled Ohio State, he said, out-toughed them to 50-50 balls, in terms of halfcourt execution, in the rebounding battle.
No, his teammates, Aaron Craft to his left and Deshaun Thomas to his right, told him: Ohio State actually finished with a plus-3 rebounding advantage.
“We won by three? Oh shoot,” Ravenel said. He paused, and then continued: “Well they converted on the offensive rebounds.”
Actually, Ohio State had more second-chance points too, but Ravenel’s larger analysis was not incorrect or misplaced — Indiana controlled Sunday’s game, thoroughly and, for most of the last 28 minutes, completely.
Here was the response necessary following Thursday’s late collapse, a minute-by-minute exercise in forced frustration and almost unbelievable error. No. 1 Indiana could not put to bed an inferior foe, even with a 10-point lead late, so production was required on this trip, if for no other reason than to shore up the Hoosiers’ rapidly receding footing in the Big Ten title race.
Indiana got a response in spades.
The Hoosiers did not trail in Sunday’s final 27 minutes. They shot better from the field, shot more and better from the free-throw line and generally offered a much more statistically and aesthetically impressive performance than their counterparts.
Columbus has not been kind to Indiana lately, nor have trips to visit Top 25 Big Ten teams. Sunday’s victory was Indiana’s third at Ohio State in the last decade, its first against a Top 25 team away from home since 2002 and its first against a top-10 opponent since 2000. None of those landmarks were unearned though.
Three days after a subpar performance in Champaign, Cody Zeller (40) was dominant for the Hoosiers against Ohio State.
“They came in and executed their gameplan,” Ravenel said. “We kind of just didn’t have it today. That shouldn’t be the case, but that’s what it was.”
That gameplan included a lot of Cody Zeller, early, late, often and then more. He scored the first points of the game, rapidly eclipsed his six-shot total at Illinois with eight in the first 20 minutes and balanced 24 points perfectly evenly over two halves, scoring 12 in each.
Zeller’s schooling of Buckeyes center Amir Williams was borderline comical. Williams picked up two fouls in the game’s first three minutes. He sat down. He didn’t return until the start of the second half, and he picked up foul No. 3 just 36 seconds after play resumed. To be fair, it took him almost 3 1/2 minutes to tally No. 4, but he’d been almost entirely removed from the flow of the game at that point.
Williams would finish with no field goal attempts and just four rebounds in 11 minutes, a meager contribution noted by Buckeyes coach Thad Matta afterward.
Zeller was not alone with his splendid performance.
Victor Oladipo matched Thomas’ 26-point outlay, but he so on half as many shots. He was irrepressible in both halves, driving the ball, getting to the rim, gathering up his customary opportunistic points and even one time hitting a contested 3-pointer running off of a screen.
Christian Watford went for 20, including four momentum-changing 3-pointers and a solid six-rebound effort that’s become the norm for him of late. When Indiana is at its best, Watford acting as a strong foil to Zeller is often part of what is making the offense in particular run so smoothly.
Ohio State fans complained about foul calls — the Buckeyes ended the game with 12 more fouls committed than Indiana — but the reality was that by and large, one team was earning more whistles than the other with not just its willingness to drive the ball but to seek contact and force fouls. Craft and Ravenel both fouled out, and Williams and Shannon Scott each finished the game with four, while Indiana made more free throws (22) than Ohio State attempted (20).
The Hoosiers might not have the No. 1 distinction by lunchtime Monday, but what they earned Sunday was far more valuable.
Those who understand and project NCAA Tournament seeding wanted at least one high-quality road win from Indiana (whose away-from-home dry spell has been addressed) to prove itself deserving of the Midwest’s No. 1 seed. That’s the line in the bracket that would send IU to Lexington, Ky., or Dayton, Ohio, and then potentially Indianapolis for the regional.
Losing as they did at Illinois did the Hoosiers no favors, and with a heavily backloaded Big Ten road schedule, skepticism about IU’s credentials as a national title contender (or perhaps even a Big Ten title contender) was hitting a crescendo.
Enter an opportunity presented, and one quickly and assertively taken. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, Indiana left little doubt about its capacity to achieve this season. One game in February wins nothing tangible, other than the right to rewrite the win column once more. But wins like this, considering the circumstances of their origin, can be a harbinger of things to come.
College basketball has been waiting for one or two of its more elite teams to step up to the spotlight and offer a commanding presence, and Indiana looked that part Sunday. Realistically, it looked that part through most of this week, sans a few sloppy, unfocused minutes in Champaign.
Ohio State, participant in two of the last six Final Fours, has become a standard bearer in the Big Ten, one of the conference’s most consistent contenders. Craft steered them last season all the way to the national semifinal, where the Buckeyes lost to Kansas.
He’s also seen Indiana’s growth during his career, from 12 wins two years ago to 27 last year to a frontrunner’s role in 2013. On Sunday, he saw something more — he saw poise and command. Craft, himself no stranger to the sight, saw an elite team control and win a tough game.
“We’d make a run. They’d make a 5-0 run right back at us,” Craft said. “They kept their composure.
“That’s what great teams do.”