BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On Saturday afternoon, for exactly 10 minutes, 9 seconds, the Indiana Hoosiers tasted basketball perfection.
Before it began, the No. 5 Hoosiers held a narrow 16-15 lead over No. 8 Minnesota, the product of a first quarter that came exactly as advertised: physically brutal, back and forth, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo trading shots with Trevor Mbakwe and Andre Hollins, apparently destined to do it all day.
That's when IU exploded. Jordan Hulls made one 3 and then another. Oladipo slapped away a steal and fought for a layup on the break. Christian Watford hit an 8-foot hook shot and a 3. Oladipo and Hulls hit again.
By the 4:35 mark, Indiana had rattled off an 18-2 run.
Four minutes later, the torrent of pressurized defense and crisp offense finally halted, and a crowd of 17,000 thundered its approval. It was halftime. The Hoosiers had forced 12 turnovers and shot 65.6 percent. They led the No. 8 team in the country 52-29.
For a team that shot and played that well, that experienced the 10 best minutes of college basketball we've seen all season in front of a delirious home crowd, the final 20 minutes -- when Minnesota rallied to within three points in the final moments, pushing IU to a narrow 88-81 victory -- felt like a harsh comedown.
When Hulls, Oladipo and Zeller took the podium for their postgame news conference, they didn't look like a team that had just beaten the No. 8 team in the country. They looked like they had lost.
Oladipo was kicking himself for his careless second-half fouls on the Gophers' 3-point shooters. The last one came with 19 seconds left and IU up 84-79, and allowed the Gophers to cut the lead to one possession.
"I was just being undisciplined," Oladipo said. "I cannot make those mistakes. I felt like I almost blew the game."
Hulls, for his part, was bothered about missed free throws. In 2011, when his streak of 56 straight free throws ended, the career 85.6 percent shooter told reporters, "They're free for a reason." On Saturday, Hulls missed three free throws, two of which would have sealed the game in the final moments and required Zeller to tap a brilliant offensive rebound back to the point guard.
In all, the Hoosiers missed 14 free throws. Thirteen of those misses came in the second half. They, like Oladipo's fouls, helped the Gophers close the gap.
"We've got to hit free throws," Hulls said. "That's going to get us if we don't hit our free throws. [It's] a lack of focus, I guess."
With all the long faces and self-recriminations, it was easy to forget one simple fact: Indiana had just beaten a very good team. Minnesota entered Saturday 15-1, fresh off a road spanking of No. 12 Illinois at Assembly Hall West and just three games removed from an impressive home-court win over Michigan State. Mbakwe and Rodney Williams form one of the nation's most athletic and imposing frontcourts -- no team in the nation rebounds more of its misses than this one -- and coach Tubby Smith has gotten excellent performances from guards Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman.
Indiana beat that team. For 10 minutes, Indiana destroyed that team. Since when is a win not a win?
"It's a big win," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "The difference is a year ago we would have been ecstatic about that victory -- and I want them to enjoy it -- but we have different expectations now."
Those expectations, Crean explained, aren't about the preseason No. 1 ranking or Big Ten favorite status or what each win says to the college hoops landscape at large. Those expectations, Crean said, are internal. They come from a constant and maniacal push to improve, a trait the ever-active coach and his players seem to share.
More upbeat about the victory than his stars, Crean talked proudly during his news conference about his players' unwillingness to take days off. He told a story about a players-only film session following the team's loss to Butler. The players called it upon themselves, broke down the tape, made notes and recommendations, and submitted them to the coaching staff.
"I read all the notes ... which were really on point and really on target," Crean said. "And then they went and did something about it on the court."
As hard as they are to quantify, those intangibles can mean the difference between a championship team and a Sweet 16 finalist. The good news for the Hoosiers -- and brace yourself for some searing analysis -- is they're already awfully good at basketball. Entering Saturday, Indiana was the only team in the country to rank in the top five in the nation in both points (1.21) and points allowed (0.83) per possession. By contrast, last season's Hoosiers team was a brilliant offensive unit with a so-so defense, to the point that Crean's strategy for upsetting Kentucky in the Sweet 16 was to score as fast as possible and hope for the best. (IU lost 102-90).
This offense remains excellent and arguably more difficult to guard than it was last season. The combination of All-American-level frontcourt work from Zeller and that cadre of perimeter shooters is still as tough to check as ever. The addition of touted freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, who played 37 minutes Saturday, gives IU added ballhandling, more speed and a savant's knack for the brilliant pass (see his left-handed cross-court whip to Hulls in the first half Saturday, among others). The emergence of Oladipo, the nation's most efficient basket attacker -- he leads the country in 2-point field goal percentage -- has made IU almost impossible to guard for any extended period of time. On Saturday, all five Indiana starters finished in double digits.
But defensive improvement from last season is where the difference really lies and where this team has already answered the biggest offseason question about all that hype -- whether it can get stops in March, when stops matter most. On Saturday, Indiana's defense on the low block -- highlighted by Zeller's rim protection and Watford's positional battle with Mbakwe, which might have been the best defense Watford, a senior, has ever played -- was a major factor in the win.
It's a big win. The difference is a year ago we would have been ecstatic about that victory -- and I want them to enjoy it -- but we have different expectations now.
”-- Indiana coach Tom Crean
"Indiana is much more aggressive offensively and defensively, and it showed," Smith said.
Still, there are areas for improvement. On Saturday, the Hoosiers went drastically cold in the second half, turning their crazy-hot 21-of-32 first half into a 6-of-21 second half. There were the missed free throws, the bane of Hulls' existence. This season, the Hoosiers have turned the ball over on 19 percent of their possessions, and they don't force as many turnovers as Crean -- who tracks and cites his staff's deflections count with an almost ritualistic fervor -- would like.
Plus, if you ask, the IU coach can give you a laundry list of things he wants to rectify: ball reversal, bench scoring, defensive rebounding, transition defense, attacking the press, late-game situations, attacking the rim (especially when in the bonus, as IU was at the 12-minute mark of the second half) and "understanding when it's really time to put a team away." About the only area Crean won't dare to question is his team's work ethic -- its desire to become as good as he imagines.
At one point Saturday, Crean said he wanted to have a "group of guys on the court that are just so intertwined " but before he could finish the thought, he trailed off and quickly moved on to another.
Whatever comes after "intertwined," whatever Crean sees when he imagines his platonic basketball ideal, it can't look much different from what Indiana did during that 10 minutes, 9 seconds in the first half Saturday, when it put one of the best teams in the country into a 36-14 blender.
Outside of the greats -- Kentucky 2012, UNC 2009, Kansas 2008 -- most teams are lucky to ever play like that, even for a few minutes. Indiana is trying to make it the norm.
"The second half -- we can't accept that," Hulls said. "We know we have to play a lot better."
"We have a lot of room for improvement," Crean said.
Thing is, they're right. How scary is that?