Tipoff: Indiana vs. Minnesota/Illinois, Big Ten tourney, noon Friday
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None of the Indiana Hoosiers are satisfied. Let's get that straight. There is too much to do, too many obstacles to face, too many reasons for concern when you have championship aspirations.
Win the Big Ten tourney?
Of course IU wants to do that, and it will get that chance this weekend in Chicago, but that is secondary to an NCAA championship, which is getting way ahead of ourselves.
“You want to win,” coach Tom Crean said. “That's what you coach for.”
It's also what you play for.
“That's the reason why I came here,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “It's the reason we all came here. God brought us together so we could accomplish something better than ourselves.”
So let's take a step back before stepping forward.
Here is IU Athletic Director Fred Glass, who took over four years ago when the basketball program was at its worst, appreciating the moment when it was, for now, at its best. When it out-toughed a tough-minded Michigan team, winning where no visitor had won this season, refuting the notion that it had gone soft, that it had peaked too early and had worn down amid physical Big Ten battles.
“We are officially back,” Glass says.
Glass hears the criticism when he's not reading it, and if he lets that sort of thing roll past him easier than Tom Crean, his tightly wound basketball coach, that doesn't mean he's immune to the sting. Glass sees a Michigan box score that shows a 53-30 rebound edge, including 24 offensive rebounds, that answers all the physical questions.
“The way they won (at Michigan), the toughness they showed,” he says. “The way we out-rebounded them. The second-chance points we had. The getting more shots. Tom doing a great coaching job at the end. The bench coming in and thriving. The pounding it inside. All things that maybe there have been some chirping around the edges that we couldn't do, we did. It's really satisfying.”
Satisfaction comes amid Handshake Gate, when the feisty Crean got carried away with an unnecessary confrontation with Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer that is, in the final analysis, irrelevant. Crean is an emotional guy in an emotional sport and Glass absolutely has his back.
“Tom is the greatest. He has the trust of these kids. They trust him. I'm so pleased to see them rewarded for the incredible job they did this year.”
That job includes Indiana (26-5) getting its first outright Big Ten championship since 1993 and its first-ever conference tourney No. 1 seed. It will play the winner between Minnesota (20-11) and Illinois (21-11) in Friday's quarterfinals.
The Hoosiers have never won this event, although they did finish second in 2001, losing to a Steve Alford-coached Iowa team.
Teams survive conference tournaments as much as win them. A brutal Big Ten regular season will certainly beget a brutal conference tourney. No matter. That's not Crean's message to his players.
“You stay so locked in to what made you successful,” he says. “You don't come out of it.”
What makes Indiana successful is sharing the ball, reversing the ball, pushing the ball. It's mixing defenses, pressing at times, zoning at others, always seeking to bring fatigue to the game.
And speaking of fatigue, the Hoosiers insist they are not wearing down.
“There's no question that over a long season the mental fatigue of it kicks in, but the word 'grind' is overused and misunderstood,” Crean says. “A lot goes into this. These guys have worked so hard to be in this position.
“You're always taking steps and moving forward. You can't sit back on it. You've got to keep the game fresh.”
Crean began dialing down the practice intensity just past mid-January. It was, he says, “far earlier than we ever had before” to ensure his players were ready for the stretch run.
If the Michigan victory is any indication, the Hoosiers are very ready.
As for the big picture of a national championship, IU is prepared as it hasn't been in at least a generation, a reflection of its own talent, experience and toughness as well as Big Ten competitiveness.
“You win a conference like this and there's no question it builds confidence,” Crean says. “It's like an old Bob Knight quote from 1976. He said, It's not about the experience, it's about the understanding. When I read that it was like, eureka! I get it.
“You can't speed up players. They have to understand what the games are about and how to put teams away.”
The Hoosiers, it seems, have that figured out. Now they just have to prove it.