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Showdown will tell us much about Big Ten elite

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So, this must be what relevance feels like.

How far has the Hoosiers’ basketball team come in one season?

Consider this yardstick.

The last time a No. 1 team came into Assembly Hall, it was simply an opportunity to be competitive. Last year’s IU squad surpassed expectations and pulled off the greatest upset of the year in toppling Kentucky.

IU was relevant once again.

How quickly we have moved past that. Fast forward to Saturday, when top-ranked Michigan travels to Bloomington.

No longer is it enough to play tough.

Relevance, we find, is a relative term; sought after when it is a goal, irrelevant when it has been attained.

Anything but a victory will be a disappointment for IU. No matter what ranking the Wolverines bring with them, this is a must-win for the Hoosiers.

It won’t decide who wins the Big Ten title, but it may decide who does not.

The two leaders are tied at the top with 7-1 records, but they got there in different ways. Michigan lost at Ohio State, while the Hoosiers dropped a home game to nemesis Wisconsin.

Another IU home defeat would cast a long shadow on Groundhog Day.

That would be quite a blow for a team many considered to be the best in the nation in November.

The schedule from here on is tough, very tough. The No. 3 Hoosiers are on the road for four of the next six games, including at Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota.

Running the table at those venues is quite unlikely, as is taking the season finale at Michigan.

That makes Saturday’s showdown (ESPN, 9 p.m.) essential.

It no longer is enough to play tough. IU must win if it expects to compete for the Big Ten title.

That is a tall order against a Michigan team that already owns road wins at Illinois and Minnesota. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. may be the best guard combo in the nation.

In many ways, the Wolverines and Hoosiers are similar teams that rely on an up-tempo game and skilled offensive players to wear down the opposition.

Michigan averages 78.5 points a game (12th in the nation) on 51 percent shooting (3rd in the nation); Indiana scores 83.3 on 50 percent (2nd and 6th).

The ball will find its way to the basket. The key is which team can keep it from going up at all.

This is where the Hoosiers have a decided advantage.

IU is first in the conference in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to .373 shooting; Michigan is eighth at .404.

If not for the sizzle of the moment, it would be fitting to reflect on how these programs have bounced back from dismal times just a few years back.

Indiana’s turnaround is well-documented. A team that won only three conference games two seasons ago is now a favorite to win a national title.

The Wolverines’ rebound is less dramatic but certainly impressive, as a team that finished with a losing record in 2010 has made great strides.

But those comparisons are for another day.

Right now, all that matters is the Big Ten title and the showdown that may ultimately decide it.

The days about feeling good about simply getting better are gone.

A short season ago, it was simply a matter of being relevant again.

Now, IU is playing Michigan in prime time with the Big Ten lead and No. 1 national ranking on the line.

That’s about as relevant as you can get.

Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net

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