— Maybe it’s time for Victor Oladipo to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, out-run trains and prove he’s more powerful than, well, you get the point.
If you saw Indiana’s junior guard single-handedly crush Michigan State’s Big Ten title hopes, you know limits have no relevance.
The guy had a bad ankle and still totaled 19 points, nine rebounds and five steals in the top-ranked Hoosiers’ 72-68 win at No. 4 Michigan State on Tuesday night.
“He’s great,” teammate Cody Zeller said. “He’s been great for us all year. We have so many different players who have stepped up for us at different times of the year and this time it was Victor down the stretch. He’s a great player. That’s what great players do.”
Here’s a snapshot of greatness. In the last minute, with a Big Ten title and, perhaps, a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed at stake, in front of a roaring Breslin Center crowd screaming for his failure, Oladipo had a steal, two baskets and two victory-clinching free throws.
“It’s just Victor being Victor,” teammate Jordan Hulls said. “He’s going to surprise you in a lot of different things on both ends of the floor. Once you get that adrenaline going, you kind of forget about your ankle.
“Victor played huge for us.”
Here’s how huge. IU hadn’t won in East Lansing since 1991, a year before Oladipo was born. That was 17 straight losses.
And it might have been 18 if Oladipo hadn’t played as if the ankle he’d sprained three days earlier against Purdue was fiction instead of fact.
We know for sure he wasn’t full strength. Coach Tom Crean was adamant:
“There’s no way he was 100 percent. He wasn’t close. The way he played was excellent, but the way he finished this game … he was winded. There’s no doubt his foot hurt.
“He might tell you different but I know him. I know when he’s right and when he’s not right. But I know that mind was right. That was the biggest thing.”
Oladipo has always thrived as much with effort and heart as with skill and athleticism. Nobody out-works him. Few have risen as far.
He arrived in Bloomington as an unheralded freshman lucky to make the top 150 national recruiting rankings. Now he is, if you believe the various national player of the year straw polls coming out, perhaps the nation’s No. 2 player. He has positioned himself into a possible lottery pick if he enters the NBA draft after the season. He surpassed 1,000 career points.
Oladipo plays big in big games. He had 19 points against North Carolina, 20 points against Minnesota, 21 in the Assembly Hall meeting with Michigan State, a career-high 26 points at Ohio State. And on Tuesday night, in perhaps the biggest college game of the season, he was a man among boys.
“I was just finishing plays out,” he said. “Doing what I do.”
Not playing against Michigan State (22-5) was never an option.
“You’d have to kill me to keep me out of this one,” he said.
Crean had no intention of doing that.
“I don’t think we ever felt he wouldn’t play. His attitude was great. He was rehabbing at a high level.
“Now being able to play at a level of effectiveness are night and day things. He tried his best his last few days to be himself, but he hasn’t been. He wasn’t bad, but his maturity and level of toughness went up a notch.
“There’s no way he felt good. There’s no way he had normal conditioning. But he has such a mental toughness.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he’s Oladipo’s biggest fan for 29 games of the regular season. The two times the Spartans face him, however, not so much.
“He makes them better,” Izzo said. “He’s a refuse-to-lose guy. We bottled him up pretty much and then he gets like three baskets in the last 30 seconds.”
If it was more like two baskets and two free throws in the last 43 seconds, why quibble over details.
“When it was time,” Izzo said, “he made the plays.”
Because Oladipo did, top-ranked Indiana (24-3) took a huge step in winning its first Big Ten title since 2002. It has a one-game lead over Michigan State, but because it swept the Spartans in two games this season, it also has the tie-breaker edge, which in effect gives it a two-game lead.
The Hoosiers (12-2 in the Big Ten) still have home games against Iowa and No. 18 Ohio State, and road games at Minnesota and No. 7 Michigan, but they control their own destiny. Win them all and they get the Big Ten title, the conference tourney No. 1 seed and a NCAA tourney top seed.
Win three of the four and they’re still fine. Win two or less and it gets more complicated, but that’s a debate for another day.
“To play in games like this, to win a game like this, it’s not just about how tough you are, but how smart you are,” Crean said. “It’s because our guys played with great toughness and intelligence.”
In other words, they played like Oladipo.