Like all basketball fans and so-called experts, I’ve been asked repeatedly this season to peer into my crystal ball and determine which team is the nation’s best.
The only problem is my crystal ball has been smothered with Beijing smog for most of the season. Teams have treated the No. 1 ranking like a bad case of cooties with no givebacks. They have taken turns as college basketball's Katherine Webb, the It boys of the moment. But on Saturday night, from the comfort of my sofa, I finally had some clarity.
The two best teams in the country are Indiana and Michigan. I’m even ranking them that way in this week’s power rankings, loss by the Wolverines notwithstanding.
Florida is in the mix, especially since the Gators are treating the rest of their SEC brethren like the wimpy kids they are. Still, that weak conference slate and losses to the only other two really good teams Florida has played (Kansas State and Arizona) gives me pause.
I still like Louisville, but the Cardinals have a minuscule margin for error, a propensity for endgame hiccups and an occasional allergic reaction to offense that makes me nervous.
In Indiana and Michigan, I have no such reservations. The two teams that played one another in Bloomington answered every question I had. It was a high-quality, high-intensity and wildly entertaining game (especially in a season in which getting CYO schools is the norm) -- so good that I’d gladly sign up for another serving, not just on March 10 in Ann Arbor, but on April 8 in Atlanta.
The Hoosiers reminded us all why they were the hot pick in October. When their offense gets going, it’s downright pretty -- crisp passes, sharp shooters and Victor Oladipo, a one-man highlight reel. At one point in the game, I was trying to explain to my 8-year-old son what transition offense was. In a split second, Jordan Hulls nailed a 3-pointer in transition.
I simply said, "That."
Cody Zeller emerged from his player of the year witness protection program with a performance (19 points, 10 boards) that was more than impressive; it was dominant. If there is a knock on Zeller, it is that he can be too passive. Butler’s Andrew Smith stole his lunch money earlier this season.
But not against the Wolverines. Zeller was assertive and aggressive, barely missing out on a double-double and endearing himself to the entire state of Indiana with his hustle play at the end of the game.
Yet as much as IU moved me in victory, I was equally impressed with the Wolverines in defeat. I’ll admit to being a hard sell where Michigan was concerned, especially early. The Wolverines were young and something of an enigma.
Yeah, never mind.
A lot went wrong for Michigan against Indiana. The Wolverines trailed big early. Their offense was never quite in sync. The crowd was insane.
And yet Michigan was in it until the bitter end. That’s not a good team. That’s a great team.
And it wasn’t the proven commodities of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. that turned my head. It was Mitch McGary. The freshman went toe-to-toe with Zeller and while the more experienced Hoosier got the best of him, McGary still did plenty to show a huge upside.
Now for the caveat: Michigan and Indiana may both lose again. Maybe as soon as this week.
The Big Ten is no place for old men or off days. The Wolverines will host Ohio State on Tuesday, travel to Wisconsin on Saturday and then go to rival Michigan State on Feb. 12. Indiana, meantime, goes to Illinois on Thursday and to Ohio State on Sunday.
That’s fine. I am done being snookered by the roller coaster of this season and hoodwinked by the flavor of the week.
Indiana and Michigan are the best teams in the country.
My fingers aren’t even crossed.