By Chris Mahr
Ten years ago this March, Tom Crean was the coach of a highly-seeded NCAA tournament team from the Midwest led by a player who was always the most talented player on the floor. While his competition furiously pumped their legs in an effort to keep up with or stop him, Marquette’s Dwyane Wade seemed to glide by and (in the case of Kentucky in the Elite Eight) over them.
History is set up to repeat itself this spring. Only this time, Crean is the coach of top-ranked Indiana. And his transcendent star, Victor Oladipo, doesn’t only have a chance to duplicate Wade’s heroics in March. He has the physical makeup to be Wade 2.0 at the next level.
Let’s start with the college parallels first. In 2003, Wade put Marquette firmly on his back and carried the Golden Eagles to the Final Four with a mix of timely shooting, daring drives to the hoop and a series of did-you-see-that defensive plays. Sound like someone you’re familiar with, Indiana fans?
The Hoosiers’ gut-punch of a last-second loss to Illinois on February 7 could have easily sent them into a tailspin that would’ve derailed their Final Four aspirations. Since then, Oladipo has been unquestionably the best player on the floor — our apologies, Cody Zeller — in IU’s most important games since then: A pair of road wins, at then-No. 10 Ohio State on February 10 and at No. 4 Michigan State on Tuesday.
There was a frightening efficiency with which Oladipo slashed through the Buckeyes. He needed just 10 field goal attempts en route to his 26 points (he made eight of his shots). He was 9-of-10 from the charity stripe. He made his only three-point attempt of the afternoon. He recorded two of Indiana’s three steals.
Yes, he received plenty of help from Zeller (24 points) and Christian Watford (20 points). But while Zeller makes his living in the paint and Watford prefers to do his damage from distance, Oladipo comes at his opponents from everywhere. They can’t game plan for what he’ll do and where he’ll do it from. In big games, that’s a dangerous trait to have.
What’s interesting is that in the Hoosiers’ next two games, against Big Ten bottom-feeders Purdue and Nebraska, Oladipo stepped to the side (a combined 16 points in two easy wins). It was as if he was saving his best for IU’s trip to East Lansing.
Seemingly every other highlight in ESPN’s recap of Indiana-Michigan State had Oladipo’s name on it. There he was grabbing a key rebound, driving impressively to the hoop, throwing the ball off the back of an unsuspecting Spartan defender for an easy dunk. And then there was his defense, the highlights of which were five steals and a monster block on Travis Trice.
Oh, and did I mention that his 19-point, nine-rebound, five-steal performance came on a bum ankle?
That’s the college aspect of the Oladipo-Wade comparison. What makes him worthy of the comparison at the next level — not to mention the top overall pick in the NBA Draft — is the fluidity of his game. He forces nothing yet dominates when the stakes are highest.
His stats bear that out. While he’s averaging only 14 PPG to accommodate more shots for teammates Zeller, Watford, Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell, he’s doing so economically. He’s seventh nationally in field goal percentage (63.9%), the only guard in the Top 10. He’s only attempted 45 3-pointers this season, yet made 23 of them (51.1%).
Throw in a reputation as one of the best athletes and disruptive defenders in the country and you have a formula for a dynamite NBA combo guard in the vein of — you guessed it — Dwyane Wade.
Oladipo’s meteoric rise on draft boards in the past two months has seen him go from a potential first round pick to a selection in the mid teens to a Top 10 pick, according to NBADraft.net and ESPN’s Chad Ford. Who exactly is more appealing to NBA scouts than Oladipo?
Kentucky center Nerlens Noel just tore his ACL, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart is erratic and Zeller isn’t an elite, NBA-level athlete. The No. 1 overall pick should be between Oladipo and Kansas wing Ben McLemore and right now, no one is playing better basketball than Oladipo.
Can Oladipo out-do Wade by leading the Hoosiers to an NCAA title instead of just the Final Four and going No. 1 overall in the NBA draft instead of No. 5? And could Oladipo be – gulp – an even better pro than Wade?
It would be fitting if the exploits of a Crean player who wore No. 3 would be duplicated and then exceeded by an equally talented all-around star who wears No. 4.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.