Photo courtesy of IU Athletics:
s he entered the press room after another hard-fought win against a B1G opponent, the look on Tom Crean’s face spoke for itself. He wasn’t overly elated or unnecessarily excited – he was pleased with the effort; satisfied with the performance, but not overly so.
He looked as though he expected this result, but that his expectation made this victory no less appreciable.
“When I started recruiting, I always thought you had to recruit for grit but I’ve learned with this team and some of these guys that it can be developed, that it can come out. And that’s exactly what’s happening with some of our guys right now … Watching players develop and play at a level they had not played at before against the highest level of competition, that’s a big time thing.”
All through last season, Crean nailed the same points time and again: mentality, grit, toughness, “stick-to-it-iveness” (an invented term to be sure) and other phrases communicating the importance of playing with as much determination and “edge” as possible.
All through last season, the message seemed not to sink in. The Hoosers were inconsistent. They were spotty. They struggled to find consistency on either end of the floor and even when they did, they had trouble keeping it for long stretches. IU was a middle-of-the-pack offensive team and a subpar defensive team, allowing an astonishing amount of made three-pointers and attempted free throws.
As a result, a host of fans questioned the direction and development of this team. They wondered how much a 12-20 team adding a single marquee player could improve. Thursday night against Michigan gave them another answer. Cody Zeller put forth his best offensive effort of the conference season, scoring 18 points on eight of 10 shooting and converting a pair of old-fashioned three-point-plays.
“I got a lot of easy baskets from dump-offs,” he said afterward. “But I just try to stay active.”
Even though Zeller played a big role in Indiana’s win over the Wolverines, it was the performance of more experienced standbys, Christian Watford and Verdell Jones, which allowed the Hoosiers to pull out the win. Watford scored 24 points – his third 20-point game in the last five – and Jones tallied six assists and hit a cold-blooded shot that ended up being the deciding margin.
“I thought Victor (Oladipo) was going to make a play originally,” he said of the shot. “Then I saw he swung in and (Tim) Hardaway was playing my right hand hard so I swung it through and just made a play.”
It was a broken play that few would have expected him to capitalize on last year. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure how many of the sellout crowd expected him to capitalize last night given his rough shooting performance against tough defense thrown at him by the Michigan backcourt.
But make the play he did.
Just like the team defense did against Ohio State and like Christian Watford did against Kentucky, Verdell Jones III made the play that needed to be made to win the game. That’s been a recurring theme for the Hoosiers that few would have expected before the start of this season: winning tough, ugly and by any means possible.
Rewind to the end of the 2010-2011 season when fans wondered if last year’s team underachieved and were questioning the job that Crean was doing as head coach. As Butler made their second straight National Title run, talking heads openly speculated on the possibility of Brad Stevens being lured to Indiana to take over Crean’s job. Even as this season began, some speculated that Crean needed results – preferably sooner rather than later – to keep his job safe.
To this point in the season, he’s gotten those results in spades. His Hoosiers have won more games than in any of Crean’s first three seasons with still more than half of a season to go, and they still have room to grow.
“The bottom line is this team gritted it out again,” Crean said afterward. “They have won 14 different games 14 different ways with a lot of room for improvement. I’m excited about them.”
Just like Crean, fans should be (and are) excited about this year’s Indiana squad. Thursday’s win wasn’t pretty by any stretch – and was downright ugly at times – but a win’s a win, no matter the number of style points it may or may not have garnered.
Which brings us back to Crean’s demeanor as he entered the room for his postgame press conference. He undoubtedly would have preferred to see a comfortable win instead of another nailbiter, but will just as surely take Thursday’s contest as a positive commentary on this team’s newfound ability to win close games and as a tool to illustrate areas that need to improve.
Crean seemed more at ease; more comfortable in his own skin than he had after last year’s win over Illinois and this year’s win over Kentucky. He appeared to be in charge of a team that wasn’t surprised to win a game like this and that he wasn’t surprised either.
He looked like a man who will be able to coach instead of spending his time boosting confidence or preaching the value of a tough mentality, and coach a damn good team at that.
After his first three seasons, that must be nice.