College basketball coaches often try hard to downplay epic regular-season encounters as just another step toward tournament time.
Indiana coach Tom Crean bucked the trend by simply enjoying the moment Saturday night following his No. 3-ranked Hoosiers’ 81-73 victory against No. 1 Michigan at Assembly Hall.
The clock ticked up to midnight and Crean was still in the press room talking about the win, his program’s development and the fact ESPN’s “Gameday” had anchored its coverage Saturday at Assembly Hall. An hour after the game had finished, Hoosiers such as guards Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell were in the hallway outside the locker room giving interviews ... still in their uniforms.
“Well, it made for an exciting day,” Crean said. “I think you want to take in the whole atmosphere. You want to reflect a little bit and say ‘This is a really big deal.’ We had been part of one at Marquette (where he previously coached), and obviously, when we started here it wasn’t like ‘Gameday’ was on the horizon anytime soon.
“The program worked its way to have this be a place where it wanted to go. It’s a huge honor for us to have something like this, but I also think it’s well-earned not only by the program but by our fans.”
For the first time at storied Assembly Hall, two top three-ranked basketball teams were facing off. “Sometimes in these situations when there is so much attention and hoopla and hype surrounding a game, it can’t live up to it. This one did, I think,” Crean said.
While the game didn’t have the last-second buzzer beater such as Indiana’s 73-72 victory over No. 1 Kentucky last season, it was a tense encounter that featured the Wolverines trying to claw their way back into the game most of the night. Michigan’s only lead was 3-2 and the Wolverines managed a 40-40 tie early in the second half. The rest of the game, Michigan (20-2, 7-2 Big Ten) was fighting from behind.
It was a tough fight considering the fans were attempting an emotional beat-down with all their might.
When Crean wasn’t directing player traffic on the court, he was waving his arms, trying to get the sell-out crowd to keep pumping out airplane-engine noise.
“Why not?” Crean said. “I was having fun, too. We worked long and hard for this. Our fans were fantastic. Sometimes you smell momentum.”
The players must have smelled the momentum, because they certainly couldn’t have heard it.
If the fans held up their end, so did the star players involved in the showdown. Indiana center Cody Zeller went eight for 10 from the field and finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. “He makes big plays at big times,” said Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who had 15 points, two steals and two assists. “That’s why he is the big fellow.”
Oladipo was just as big. Michigan couldn’t deal with his quickness in penetrating at times, including his incredible attempt to dunk with 7:49 remaining in the game. Hulls had thrown an alley-oop pass behind Oladipo, who was skyward and closing on the rim fast. Oladipo reached back to snag the ball with his right hand, and hammered it into the rim. The ball went 25 feet in the air, and the crowd gasped in amazement.
Asked about his miss, Oladipo said, “I guess I need to do more squats.”
Crean couldn’t fault the play, even though Oladipo probably could have caught the ball and converted a lay-up instead. “I was even excited about that Vic dunk that he didn’t make,” Crean said with a big smile. “That would have been unbelievable.”
Michigan point guard Trey Burke, another solid candidate for national player of the year honors, finished with 25 points but it did take him 25 shots to get it. “He takes a lot of shots,” Oladipo said. “That’s what he needs to do for his team to win.”
In the end, Indiana (20-2, 8-1) responded to every one of Michigan’s runs.
“When it was time to put the game away, we did it,” Crean said.
Putting the game away probably earned Indiana the No. 1 ranking again, as No. 2 Kansas lost on Saturday as well.
“We were picked No. 1 and we hadn’t done anything,” Crean said of going into the season with the No. 1 ranking. “Those things are nice, but we are playing to improve, making adjustments, playing through mistakes, growing up in the game. That’s the most important. (When we weren’t No. 1), it wasn’t like the sky is falling. We had to make them understand that.”
So what will it mean if the Hoosiers are No. 1 again on Monday?
The Michigan moment was over, as was the press conference. Crean thought about the question for an instant, and then answered before leaving.
“It means we will have to be really good going into Illinois on Thursday night.”