by Nick Rotunno

It’s early February, crunch time in the conference season, and things are getting silly out there. Lots of close games, crazy upsets and weird stat lines this week, so I’ll skip the prelude and get right to the recaps.

GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 1 Indiana 72, Illinois 74—Thursday

At first, I figured one of those great Saturday games—Miami vs NC State, or Michigan vs Indiana—would qualify as my Game of the Week. Later, I considered TCU’s improbable upset over Kansas, or possibly Michigan/Ohio State from Tuesday. But then Thursday night came along, and this happened.

Once again residing in the No. 1 spot, Indiana traveled to Champagne surging with confidence, still soaring after a big win over Michigan earlier in the week. The Hoosiers looked like the country’s best team in the first half, building a 41-29 lead by intermission. Indiana’s usual suspects—hot-shooting Jordan Hulls, scary-quick Victor Oladipo and big Cody Zeller—jumped all over the Illini early, playing in rhythm and knocking down shots. When Will Sheehey finished a backdoor play with an authoritative two-handed slam, it seemed Indiana was well on its way to another Big Ten win.

Illinois, to its credit, never went away, and battled throughout the second half. The deficit closed, and the Illini hung around until guard DJ Richardson took over late in the game. He knocked down a pair of three-pointers, hit a tough midrange jumper and—with the score knotted at 72—stole the ball from Oladipo on a crucial Indiana possession. But Oladipo recovered brilliantly and swatted away Richardson’s layup attempt at the other end, setting up an Illini inbounds with 0.9 seconds left in regulation.

And then, as Hoosiers coach Tom Crean told the Associated Press, “We didn’t communicate.”

That’s something of an understatement. With Illinois inbounding from the baseline, Indiana got badly mixed up on a switch. Illini forward Tyler Griffey sprinted to the hoop uncovered and hit a layup as time expired. Knowing exactly how much time he had, Griffey wisely shot the ball off the glass, as quickly as possible, instead of dunking it. He clearly beat the buzzer, and the move likely saved the Illini from a lengthy officials’ review.

As soon as Griffey’s game-winning shot went down, orange-clad fans rushed the floor and Assembly Hall went crazy.

Illinois coach John Groce, who was jumping and screaming on the sidelines in the game’s waning moments, told reporters, “It was good to get back to having that toughness and togetherness and trust that we needed.”

The Illini most definitely needed this win. After a great start to the year, Groce’s squad had labored through its Big Ten schedule, and had lost six of its last seven conference games. This unlikely win over top-ranked Indiana was finally a step in the right direction for the Illini.

Richardson finished with a game-high 23 points on 8-15 shooting (3-7 from behind the arc). Guard Brandon Paul scored 21 for the Illini, and Griffey chipped in 14. Zeller led Indiana with 14 points and nine rebounds.

Crean was blunt after the loss; he cited a stat that would drive any coach nutty. “I know this: When we turn the ball over, we’re not very good,” he told the AP. “And the biggest difference tonight was [Illinois scored] 28 points off turnovers to our 16.”

Indiana committed 14 turnovers Thursday, while Illinois gave the ball up 10 times.

It seems a No. 1 ranking is more curse than blessing these days; no one has stayed in the top spot for long this season. But Assembly Hall is one hell of a tough barn, with some of the best fans in the conference, if not the country, and Indiana shouldn’t hang its head after a close loss in Champagne, even if the Illini are among the lesser teams in the Big Ten. I don’t think the voters will punish the Hoosiers too severely on Monday—expect Indiana to remain in the Top 5.

Saturday

No. 14 Miami 79, No. 19 NC State 78

The Hurricanes haven’t lost a game since Christmas Day. They have excellent guard play and rugged forwards, and they know how to make plays down the stretch. NC State learned all about that on Saturday, losing a tight one to Miami on is home floor.

With about 10 seconds left in the ballgame, the Wolfpack were clinging to a 78-77 lead. Miami’s Shane Larkin missed a jump shot that rattled around on the rim for a little while, enough time for big Reggie Johnson to shake off a few NC State defenders and establish position. He tipped the ball into the hoop with his left hand and gave Miami a one-point win.

NC State had one final chance, a heave from behind the half-court line that almost went down. But the Hurricanes survived and defended their perfect ACC record (8-0). Balanced scoring from Miami—Durand Scott with 18 points, Julian Gamble with 16, Johnson with 15. Kenny Kadji and Larkin each had 13. Larkin is one speedy little guard; he can go end-to-end like a rocket.

Great atmosphere in Raleigh: crazed fans, intermittent wolf howls on the loudspeakers. This was the first time I’d really sat down and watched NC State’s C.J. Leslie in action, and he was impressive. The long-limbed forward led the Wolfpack with 18 points and 12 rebounds, scoring on a variety of moves and cleaning up the glass. He’s rangy, athletic, and likes to operate from the free throw area, facing up, where his options are nearly limitless. Good handle, great footwork when he drives inside.

There’s a downside to Leslie, though—he can be careless with the ball, and he commits silly fouls. A couple of Leslie’s ill-advised plays, especially down the stretch, hurt his team. Frankly, I would expect a little more maturity from the junior.

No. 1 Michigan 73, No. 3 Indiana 81

Of course before Indiana took over the Number 1 ranking last Monday, Michigan was the top team in the polls. Naturally, this Big Ten battle in Bloomington was the marquee contest of the weekend, and it sure lived up to the hype.

Cody Zeller, the best big man in the country, scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Hoosiers. Guard Victor Oladipo scored 15. Christian Watford and Kevin Ferrell had 14 points each. Jordan Hulls dropped in 11. You get the picture. Indy was efficient, balanced and accurate, shooting 52 percent from the field (and about 39 percent from three-point land).

Assembly Hall was rocking. There were giant heads floating above the crowd, packed balconies, Bono on the loudspeakers, all the pomp and circumstance of Hoosier hoops. And Dick Vitale was calling the game, one of my faves! Indy took advantage of the atmosphere and led 20-7 after five minutes of game time. The Hoosiers jumped all over the Wolverines early—hitting shots, playing defense, generally wreaking havoc—and eventually held on for the win, even though Michigan did tie the game at one point in the second half and stayed close the rest of the way.

Trey Burke was fantastic for the Wolverines, as always, scoring 25 hard-earned points. He’s a fearless player. But Michigan needed more than Burke’s usual brilliance to beat the talented Hoosiers in that energized, packed-to-the-rafters gym.

Oklahoma State 85, No. 2 Kansas 80

The Cowboys upset the Jayhawks at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and broke two Kansas streaks in the process: 18 straight wins and 33 straight victories in Lawrence. Markel Brown racked up 28 points for OSU, while teammate Marcus Smart had 25 points.

Kansas was just one point behind in the final moments of the game, but clutch free throw shooting from the Cowboys sealed the win. It would not be the Jayhawks’ only strange loss this week…

Other Saturday notables:

Duke 79, Florida State 60

No. 6 Syracuse 55, Pitt 65

No. 7 Gonzaga 65, San Diego 63

No. 10 Oregon 54, Cal 58

No. 15 Wichita State 52, UNI 57

No. 22 SDSU 67, Air Force 70

Sunday notables:

No. 25 Marquette 51, No. 12 Louisville 70

Oregon State 73, Stanford 81

Wisconsin 74, Illinois 68

Iowa 59, Minnesota 62

Monday

No. 25 Notre Dame 47, No. 9 Syracuse 63

Sometimes when things aren’t going right, all you need is a little home cookin’. After two consecutive Big East losses to Villanova and Pitt, Syracuse righted the ship on Monday at the Carrier Dome, besting Notre Dame by 16 points. The Orange returned to upstate New York and looked like a Top 10 team again—they held the Irish to just 34.6 percent from the field (18-52) and shot nearly 50 percent themselves.

Syracuse’s C.J. Fair led all scorers with 18 points.

Tuesday

No. 2 Florida 69, Arkansas 80

With 18 wins and a great conference record, the second-ranked Gators were in great shape. But then they traveled to Arkansas and ran headlong into a Razorbacks club that was hunting for an upset.

Arkansas came out swinging in the game’s early moments, hitting numerous three-pointers and building a 23-point lead. By halftime the Razorbacks were still up 42-26, and those rowdy southern fans were screaming about it.

The Gators never recovered from those early salvos. Arkansas forced turnovers, ran the fast break and beat Florida quite handily. BJ Young scored 13 points for the hogs, while Marshawn Powell contributed 11 points and six rebounds. The Razorbacks hit eight three-pointers, shot 49 percent from the field and forced Florida to commit 16 turnovers.

No. 10 Ohio State 74, No. 3 Michigan 76

To the surprise of no one, this bitter rivalry went down to the wire in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines’ sensational backcourt knocked down three after three. The Buckeyes’ Aaron Craft was making plays on both ends of the floor. The score was 31-30 OSU at halftime, 42-41 Michigan at the end of regulation. A genuine classic, this was.

Fittingly, the last play of the game was a one-on-one tussle between Craft and Tim Hardaway Jr. Driving hard to the rim, Craft was blocked (fouled?) by Hardaway as the clock ticked down to zero.

“Ohio State-Michigan is one of the biggest rivalries in college basketball—in college, period,” Michigan guard Trey Burke said to reporters. “Just to come out and grit it out all the way to the end of regulation and in overtime, it shows a lot, how this team can stay together.”

Hardaway scored a game-high 23 points, hitting 3-5 three-pointers in the process. Burke had 16 points and four treys. OSU’s Deshaun Thomas, a beast of a forward, had 17 points to lead the Bucks. Craft finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.

It was a bounce-back game for the Wolverines, who had lost to Indiana just three days prior.

Other Tuesday notables:

Boston College 50, No. 8 Miami 72

No. 13 Kansas State 68, Texas Tech 59

Villanova 94, DePaul 71

Wichita State 62, Southern Illinois 64

Wake Forest 62, UNC 87