Midway through the second half of Tuesday night's showdown between co-Big Ten leaders Indiana and Michigan State, Spartans legend Magic Johnson couldn't help but gush over the play of Hoosiers star Victor Oladipo.
"To me, he's a combination of [Michael] Jordan and Dwyane Wade," Johnson said.
Calling Oladipo a hybrid of two of the greatest shooting guards in basketball history may strain credulity, but it's certainly not hyperbole to say the 6-foot-5 junior strengthened his bid for both Big Ten and national player of the year Tuesday night. Oladipo's finger prints were on every aspect of a 72-68 victory that snapped Indiana's 17-game losing streak at the Breslin Center and vaulted the Hoosiers into first place by themselves.
You want offense? Despite an ankle injury suffered Saturday against Purdue, Oladipo finished with 19 points on a mere 11 shots and scored the game's final six points.
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How about defense? Oladipo smothered Branden Dawson yet also choked off the passing lanes with his length and quickness, tallying a game-high five steals.
And rebounding? Oladipo did that too. He grabbed nine boards including the go-ahead tip-in of a missed Yogi Ferrell layup with 47 seconds to go and the game-sealing rebound of a Gary Harris missed free throw with four seconds left.
Heck, Oladipo even sprinkled in some playground flair here and there. Inbounding the ball up three late in the first half, Oladipo threw it off an unsuspecting Michigan State defender's back, grabbed it and dunked before the Spartans even knew what happened.
Oladipo's brilliant night served as the culmination of his rise from overlooked recruit, to defensive stopper, to legitimate national player of the year candidate. Michigan guard Trey Burke, Creighton forward Doug McDermott and Duke center Mason Plumlee have received the most attention the past few weeks, but Oladipo is gaining ground in a hurry because of his ability to impact a game so many different ways.
Victor Oladipo (USA Today Sports Images)Though his modest 13.8 points per game don't even lead his own team, Oladipo shoots a staggeringly efficient 63.9 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from behind the arc. What's more, his biggest scoring nights seem to come against Indiana's toughest foes: He had 20 in a taut Jan. 12 home win against Minnesota, 26 on the road against Ohio State on Feb. 10 and a combined 40 in two victories over Michigan State.
Top-ranked Indiana needed all his points Tuesday night to overcome a deafening Breslin Center crowd and a determined Michigan State team.
Despite a woeful night of turnovers and rushed shots from point guard Keith Appling, the Spartans never let Indiana get too far ahead in the first half and then made a series of runs at the Hoosiers in the second. Emerging forward Adreian Payne kept Michigan State in it in the first half with 10 of his 17 points and freshman guard Gary Harris led the second-half push with 11 of his 19.
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It was Harris who had the chance to potentially force overtime for Michigan State when he attempted a 3-pointer down three points with four seconds remaining and drew a foul on Will Sheehey in the process. Harris blew the first free throw, sank the second and missed the third on purpose in hopes one of his teammates could tip it in, but Oladipo out-leaped everyone to secure the rebound and clinch the victory for Indiana.
With a one-game lead on Michigan State and a two-and-a-half-game lead on Michigan and Wisconsin, Indiana has reclaimed the role of Big Ten favorite despite a demanding finish to league play. The Hoosiers still have home games left against Iowa and Ohio State and road games at Minnesota and Michigan.
Nonetheless, the Hoosiers played well enough Tuesday that at least one observer thinks they have what it takes to run that gauntlet.
"This team will be the favorite to win the national championship," Magic Johnson said during the broadcast. "They've got everything."
Now that may be no exaggeration.
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