Tipoff: Indiana at Illinois, 7 p.m. Thursday
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BLOOMINGTON -- Tom Crean takes nothing for granted when it comes to his Big Ten-leading Indiana Hoosiers, and neither do his players.
Beat Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan in a six-day span?
Regain the No. 1 ranking that was lost nearly two months earlier?
Get satisfied over the program's return to glory?
Are you nuts?
Who can get lost in accolades with the crucible that is the Big Ten schedule? This week IU plays at Illinois on Thursday and at No. 10 Ohio State on Sunday. Looming ahead are trips to No. 12 Michigan State, No. 18 Minnesota and No. 3 Michigan.
That's enough to humble even the cockiest of people.
No, that's not a subtle reference to Will Sheehey.
So when asked what it was like to beat then-No. 1 Michigan, Crean stayed on build-for-a-grand-finale point.
“It means we've got to be really good going into Illinois on Thursday night. We played well (against Michigan), but there is a lot of room for improvement.
“That's not coach-speak. It is the facts. The key for us is, can we get better?”
Crean remembers the bleak days of a couple of years ago, when IU couldn't beat anybody, when its program was as bad as it could be and remain Division I.
Those days are gone. The Hoosiers seem primed for a decade-long run or more of national prominence. It's the result of recruiting, hard work and player development; recruiting, hard work and player development; recruiting …
Do you detect a theme here?
Anyway, the Hoosiers' 20-2 record (8-1 in the Big Ten) and potential No. 1 NCAA tourney seed could blow up in a hurry in this most unforgiving of conferences. Crean's knows that just as he knows the keys to ensuring that doesn't happen.
“The moment we were trying to claw and fight to have a chance in a game taught you, reiterated to you, how important detailed preparation was,” he said. “It was about building confidence in any little area you can find. You give the players some type of confidence that they can win.
“The process of it is their improvement and their ability to absorb and gain confidence.”
The Hoosiers did absorb and gain that, although last year's big dose of Cody Zeller was the difference maker. As a freshman he was the catalyst in their Sweet Sixteen season. This year he's had a huge role in a potential national title run.
Still, Crean said, the players can't forget the early struggles that steeled them for the upcoming challenges.
“As we get better, make sure the players appreciate how hard it is to be in a spot like this. The reason they are is because their work ethic is so strong. They take nothing for granted.
“You keep building a confident mindset and not an arrogant mindset. Our job as coaches is to make sure that we're building that. They're seeing that through us and we're looking for any little sign when that's not the case.
“Our guys appreciate winning. They appreciate the task that is. Our older guys have been through so many hard times that they appreciate it more. Our younger guys were raised on winning -- Yogi Ferrell, Cody, Remy Abell. That helps.”
Now the Hoosiers face a fast-fading Illinois squad that lives and dies on the three-point shot. It has taken 555 three-pointers this season (161 more than Indiana), but connects at just a 32.8 percent clip compared to IU's 42 percent.
Illinois's three best perimeter shooters are Brandon Paul (17.4 percent, 33.1 percent beyond the arc), D.J. Richardson (11.8 points, 32.5 percent on three-pointers) and Tracy Abrams (11.4 points, 28.2 percent).
The Illini (15-8 overall, 2-7 in the Big Ten) have lost eight of their last 10 games, including three straight. They are 1-4 at home in conference play.
Still, that lone home win -- a 17-point win over Ohio State -- indicates they are no Central Connecticut State.
IU's No. 1 priority remains defense, but just behind is offensive movement. Whether that comes via transition or crisp passing and ball reversal, the key is that it comes.
“We work on movement every day,” forward Christian Watford said. “We know what we have to do. We have to play team basketball. We put an emphasis on it. Our best games have come when we do that. In order to beat a great team, you have to do stuff like that.”
That's not cocky. It's perceptive.