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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Jordan Hulls threw the lob and immediately regretted it.
"I instantly thought turnover," the Indiana guard said.
His pass was intended for teammate Victor Oladipo, but it appeared headed for nearby Gnaw Bone, Ind. It was that far off-target.
Or so it seemed.
That's when Oladipo turned pterodactyl, soaring so high and stretching so far that he actually got his right hand on the ball and tomahawked it at the rim.
And off the rim. Oladipo couldn't quite finish the play. If he had, Assembly Hall would have imploded and the Big Ten should have conducted immediate testing for helium in the 6-foot-5 junior's veins.
"It was pretty crazy how high he got," Hulls said.
"I was even kind of excited," coach Tom Crean said. "That was unbelievable."
Oladipo was less dazzled by his Near Dunk of the Year.
"Think I need to do a few more squats," he said. "I don't know how I missed. I was so close."
Here's the thing about this Indiana basketball team: Even the misses are thrilling.
After beating AP No. 1 Michigan 81-73 in yet another compelling installment of Big Ten Theater, the No. 3 Hoosiers are primed for a return engagement with the top ranking. There has been a rotating parade of pretenders to the throne since Indiana was No. 1 for the first six weeks of the year.
I don't know for sure whether the Hoosiers are the best team in the country. I do know for sure that they are the most fun team in the country.
That is, if you like beautiful shooting, crisp passing and spectacular dunks. If you like a tempo that's much closer to a spring than a slog. If you like skilled basketball more than sumo ball.
In a season when it seems like fluid offense is on the endangered list, the Hoosiers are a joy to watch.
They're explosive enough to open a high-pressure game against a high-caliber opponent with points in torrents. After the jump ball, IU hit Michigan with the following flurry: two free throws, 3-pointer, 3-pointer, 3-pointer, driving basket, 3-pointer, driving basket. By the time the game was four minutes and 35 seconds old, Indiana had 18 points on the board, a double-digit lead and had not missed a shot.
When Michigan regrouped and ultimately tied the game at 40 early in the second half, here came another display of brilliant offensive execution: 11 points in Indiana's next five possessions, making three straight shots and four out of five free throws.
And to make the final push and put the game away, the Hoosiers found another way to dazzle. They sent Oladipo slashing to the basket, fracturing the Michigan defense.
"I've seen a lot of players," said Wolverines coach John Beilein. "I don't know whether I've seen one quicker or faster, more athletic, than Oladipo. It's tough to stay in front of him."
Nobody in a maize jersey could. So when Michigan big man Mitch McGary rotated over to defend Oladipo's drives, it left center Cody Zeller free to spectacularly slam home two misses in a span of 95 seconds.
"Cody got all the highlight dunks," Oladipo said.
They have a flair for the spectacular. And a flair for the fundamental. These Hoosiers have come a long way on defense and still have more improving to do, but they might be the most entertaining team in the school's splendid history.
Bob Knight's best teams conducted in-game clinics on passing, cutting and shooting – but they didn't often play a foot above the rim. This team can. Indiana had six dunks Saturday night, raising its season total to 91.
There was a 92nd dunk Saturday night, but it happened an instant after the final horn. Oladipo went flying in for the coup de grâce even after Michigan had called off the defense, which led to some grumbling from the Wolverines and an apology from the perpetrator.
"No disrespect to Michigan," Oladipo said. "I apologize for that. I apologize to their players and coaching staff."
That and a few other interludes are likely to contribute to what should be an equally feisty atmosphere on March 10, when Indiana travels to Ann Arbor for the rematch.
Tim Hardaway Sr., the former NBA All-Star and father of Wolverines guard Tim Hardaway Jr., was mouthy behind the Michigan bench. When his son was called for a foul on a Christian Watford post-up early in the second half, Hardaway grabbed his throat while yelling at official Mike Eades, "You choked!"
Hardaway also exchanged a few words on two occasions with the Indiana student section to the right of the Michigan bench. And when the Hoosier students started crassly chanting, "Michigan suu-uucks" with 3:12 left, a man wearing a McGary jersey – Mr. McGary, I presume – nodded and placed his middle finger against his cheek in response.
So, yeah. March 10 in Crisler Center should be a doozy.
[March predictions: Kentucky still staving off NIT stink]
But both teams have some tough sledding to do before then. Indiana still must travel to Ohio State Feb. 10 and Michigan State Feb. 19, and Michigan's next three games are Ohio State Tuesday, at Wisconsin Saturday and at Michigan State Feb. 12.
In other words, there likely are more losses to come for everyone in the nation's most competitive conference.
But there will be more thrills from Indiana, too. More pretty passing and shooting, more high flying, more up-tempo basketball. For a few days, at least, the Hoosiers are No. 1 in the polls and No. 1 in entertainment value.
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