Tom Crean watched the end of the Michigan-Michigan State on Sunday in his office while the assistants and strength coach Je’Ney Jackson were getting the squad warmed up for practice. When he walked downstairs to Cook Hall, he informed his charges that for the first time in a decade, and after a taxing after a taxing five-year rebuilding process, they were Big Ten champions. They had clinched at least a share of the title with a two-game lead over Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State with two games to go.
But what said a lot to him about his team was what happened next — practice kept going without much of a hitch. They showed they were pleased, but then they moved on.
“In the fashion of them and the way that they’ve been, they just moved right on,” Crean said. “…They were excited and we just moved right on with what we were doing.”
That’s in large part because the Hoosiers realize they’re far from done. For one thing, they can win the conference title outright on Tuesday at 9 p.m. against Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Senior Night, then so much more is still possible after that.
“It’s something that we’ve been working for all year, so it’s obviously exciting for us,” IU sophomore center Cody Zeller said. “But it’s only a share of the Big Ten championship. We were right back to work to getting this win tomorrow night and having it all to ourselves.”
They want it in general to say they’re the first Indiana team since 1993 to claim an outright title, they also want it for a pioneering outgoing senior class. Senior guard Jordan Hulls and senior forwards Christian Watford and Derek Elston will all be playing in their last game at Assembly Hall on Tuesday night. They are three of the most beloved players on the roster, and they represent the class that was the foundation for the rebuild. They were part of Crean’s first class that he had any sort of time to recruit. The 2008 group included players such as Matt Roth and Tom Pritchard who had originally committed to Kelvin Sampson and whatever Crean could find to fill out a roster after the mass departures that followed Sampson’s firing and Crean’s arrival. Hulls, Watford and Elston were part of a six-man class — which also included redshirt junior Maurice Creek and transferred forwards Bobby Capobianco and Bawa Muniru — that was the first that truly bought into Crean’s pitch and picked Indiana even though they had other options.
Hulls, Elston and Watford suffered through 20-loss seasons before last year’s Sweet 16 run, and the players who never had to deal with that kind of frustration want them to go out with a Big Ten title all their own.
“They just deserve it the most of pretty much anyone on the team,” freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell said. “Just what they’ve gone through, to do something we haven’t done in so many years, to win this for them is gonna feel special to us, but to them too.”
Winning it outright still means beating No. 14 Ohio State, a team that has won three straight and has wins over all of the rest of the Big Ten contenders, including Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
The Hoosiers beat them once, winning 81-68, but the Buckeyes are better than they were for that game in Columbus on Feb. 10, Crean said. Most importantly, Crean said, the Buckeyes are getting to the free throw line more, especially forward Deshaun Thomas.
“They’re rebounding it well, they’re getting fouled, they’re winning games,” Crean said. “They’re really good. Really good. There’s no doubt in our mind that it’s gonna be an incredible battle.”