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COLUMN: A star emerged

Victor Oladipo (pictured above) vaulted himself to the front of the Big Ten Player of the Year conversation Sunday.

What made the parallel in his mind I do not know, but we can probably assume safely that Tom Izzo’s Victor Oladipo-Ray Lewis comparison was supposed to be positive.

He had just watched Indiana’s dynamic, ebullient guard carve his defense to pieces, shooting 67 percent from the floor and scoring a co-game-high 21 points. His seven rebounds, six steals and three blocks only hammered home the point further: Oladipo is now a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate.

“You have to love the way Oladipo competes,” Izzo said, succinctly if unwittingly describing what makes the 6-foot-5 do-everything player so good.

There is little secret to Oladipo’s success. He has always been one of his team’s hardest and most focused workers. Over the course of his two and a half years in Bloomington, he’s drawn praise from basically everyone around him for his willingness to do more than is asked and to commit himself 100 percent to what is.

It paid off last year, in the form of a breakout season rewarded with honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. A year on, the ceiling has been raised.

“He came in with the athleticism. He came with the work ethic,” IU coach Tom Crean said after Sunday’s win. “I think he’s a great example of the old boring statement of daily improvement — I have not seen him not have a day where he was doing something extra.”

So now the world greets Oladipo, who has quietly assembled a strong case for consideration as the Big Ten’s best player, while college basketball at large pigeonholed him for his defense.

It might have begun last March, when he sparked a spirited comeback against VCU and then scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting in Indiana’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky. He fouled out of that game and came to the bench to Crean’s fury, as his coach shouted at him that no Kentucky player could stop him from impacting the game.

That was a harbinger, it seems, as Oladipo has rarely been contained this season.

Oladipo has now scored in double figures in all but three of Indiana’s 20 games. In those three modest scoring performances, he has registered, in total, 18 rebounds, 11 assists and eight steals, and he’s never taken more than six shots in any of those games.

The one-time DeMatha Stag has turned himself into a player who can fill any column on the stat sheet, and he does it while rarely ever putting together an inefficient offensive performance.

“That’s just Victor now,” senior forward Christian Watford said after the game. “It’s definitely a part of our offense.”

In his third college season, Oladipo has vastly improved as a jump shooter (he is 16-of-29 from behind the 3-point line this year, compared to 10-of-48 last year), and he has upped his steal-, rebound- and assist-per-game averages.

Because his shots are largely high-percentage — dunks and layups, mostly — his effective field goal percentage ranks second in the country, and he leads the Big Ten in traditional field goal percentage as well.

All of this, of course, comes while Oladipo also traditionally acts as Indiana’s primary defender, the player most often handed the toughest task on that end of the floor. He began Sunday’s top-of-the-standings affair with a steal and a dunk, robbing Branden Dawson and igniting what turned into one of the best games the conference has yet seen this season.

Oladipo has been, over the course of this season to date and for those who put stock in unscientific observations like this one, Indiana’s best player, but he needed one game in the national spotlight to really assert himself as an elite player. That was Sunday.

It seemed at times like he was everywhere on the court. He routinely beat teammates and opponents to loose balls in the air and on the ground with ease.

At one point in the first half, he carried the ball up the right sideline, drove to the basket and missed, but the act of getting there was what impressed. As Oladipo ran down the floor, Dawson, himself no slouch as an athlete, angled to stop him from advancing the ball much beyond halfcourt. Oladipo left Dawson behind him at a rate of speed that made the Michigan State player seem plodding and sluggish.

So here is the new Victor Oladipo, the one that’s almost unstoppable when he plays well, and then who, when he plays well, makes his team equally tough to beat. Indiana was the preseason No. 1 team in the country largely because of its depth and because of Cody Zeller, but as January barrels toward February, it appears increasingly likely that the Hoosiers will go as far as Oladipo takes them.

Kentucky could not stop him that night in March. Tom Izzo wanted to compare him to a future Hall-of-Fame linebacker. These are all roundabout ways of illustrating his improvement.

If his play through the first third of the Big Ten season is the norm and Oladipo produces at this pace all year, there will be no need for illustration. One will need only to point to the Big Ten Player of the Year plaque he will be holding in his hands.

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