Tom Crean isn’t packing light. It’s about belief, you see. Think positive and positive things will happen, even in the grueling gauntlet known as the Big Ten tourney, and if that sounds too much like New Age blather, well, when you’re 12-19 and seeking a good finish to a disappointing season, you go for any edge you can get.
“You pack for four days,” Indiana’s coach says about the trip to Indianapolis. “You talk all that talk. You talk about starting 0-0.”
Indiana opens against Penn State tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse and it hopes for something special. No last place team has ever won this event, although No. 11 seed Illinois did make the title game before getting squashed by top-seeded Michigan State in 1999.
Only one team has won four games in four days to earn the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA tourney bid. That was sixth-seeded Iowa in 2001 when Luke Recker (yes, the former Cream 'n Crimson standout) led the way.
So what does it take to win four games in four days?
Crean isn’t sure. He’s never done it at IU or at Marquette.
“I’ve done three games in three days, but I don’t think you can look at it that way. If you even remotely get ahead in a conference tournament beyond the game that you’re in, you’re asking for trouble. Too many things can happen.”
Barring upsets, the Hoosiers would have to beat sixth-seeded Penn State, No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 2 Purdue and No. 1 Ohio State to win and earn the automatic NCAA tourney bid. It is the worst possible draw, which is what you’d expect for a No. 11 seed.
The goal would is to win it all. Looking ahead is not an option.
“So many of these things come down to the concentration level of being able to go to the foul line and make plays,” Crean says. “Understand what people are trying to do to win games. Having that confidence.”
It’s tempting to look past Penn State and consider the possibilities, but Crean won’t go there.
“If you spent that time preparing your team to get better and preparing for that game, then you eliminate some of that confusion.
“It would be like, you know, we’ll see this on Friday, so let’s work on it. Or, that could happen Saturday, let’s put that in. If you do that, you could give your team a recipe for disaster. If I had a team that just won the league or would be a lock to get into the NCAA Tournament or be one of the top seeds, I might view it differently.”
“There were times at Marquette when we knew at the beginning of the week we wouldn’t have enough time for something that Cincinnait or Louisville did,” Crean said, “so we might put that in early in the week. But those were times I knew we were in the NCAA Tournament. Or, at least, felt like we were in.
“I certainly don’t feel that here. Truly it’s getting ready for Penn State. The only Wisconsin tape I’ve seen is when Penn State played them. There’s been no jumping ahead.”
How do you know if you have great college basketball players on your roster?
For Crean, it’s as simple as explaining quantum physics.
Of course nobody, not even physicists, can explain that, but that misses the point.
“The greatest measure of a player, the way to determine who the best players are, is what happens when you go from four points down to up four in a close, hotly contested game deep into the game situation,” Crean said.
At this point of the season, IU doesn’t need great players as much as solid performances. Specifically, it needs to play individual defense well enough to avoid team defense. In other words, if you keep your man in front of you, help defense becomes unncecessary.
“It’s about individual defense and not having to help as much,” Crean said. “It’s doing our work early whether that’s being in the post or taking angles away on drives. When the team defense is constantly called upon, we’re not quite as good and athletic in dealing with some of these rotations against the better teams.
“There is an old saying -- guard your yard. I don’t use it. I know (North Carolina coach) Roy Williams uses it. That’s what you have to do. You stay with your man. That’s the biggest area.
“The second thing is we’re missing open shots, close shots. We’re not finishing great. We’re missing shots we have made and can make. We keep trying to put ourselves in situations where we’re not talking about what we’re not doing. We’re trying to get there.”