Tom Crean will never rival, say, the Rodney Dangerfields of the world. He’s an intense guy with a serious mission – coach the best basketball he possible can.
Sometimes that leaves him grumpy. And sometimes, like after a REALLY significant victory, he jokes around.
Take, for instance, beating Michigan State.
The Spartans arrived at Assembly Hall as the Big Ten’s hottest team. They had beaten Ohio State and won at Wisconsin. They were physical and tough-minded and stifling on defense. They had also owned the Hoosiers in recent years, having won seven of the last nine meetings.
Beyond that, Tom Izzo is one of the nation’s top coaches. He’s built a perennial Big Ten and national title contender. He also was once Crean’s boss.
All those were factors in Crean’s good post-game mood, but the biggest was the fact IU had thrived in crunch time, making the plays it had to make to pull out a 75-70 victory.
Victor Oladipo was an all-over-the-court beast. Christian Watford battled. Yogi Ferrell showed grit and a rapidly improving offensive game. Will Sheehey was once again an off-the-bench factor. And even without his best offensive game, Cody Zeller was a major factor.
So Crean kidded with a reporter for his soft-spoken questions. It wasn’t make-you-laugh-till-you-cry stuff, but that misses the point, which is Crean is pumped about where his team is right now.
Can you blame him?
The Hoosiers are tied with Michigan for first place in the Big Ten. Both are 6-1. If they sweep this week, they’ll be in first place alone and ready for what looms as the nation’s most brutal February schedule.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. IU has to win at rival Purdue on Wednesday night, and while the Boilers have struggled, they are rounding into dangerous form. Youth cost them in the non-conference season, but even with an 11-9 record, they have visions of a NCAA tourney berth with a strong Big Ten showing. They are 4-3 in the conference.
Then comes Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines will likely be the nation’s No. 1 team at that point. They are 19-1 overall and blessed with talent and, in Trey Burke, perhaps the Big Ten’s best point guard.
Beating Michigan State showed the Hoosiers (18-2) are ready. You do not beat the Spartans with finesse and good will to men. You win by being tough and nasty and ruthless (all within the rules, of course). You also do it by being smart, passionate and focused.
"This was a game of adjustments, and that's what it was the entire game," said Crean. “The one thing that never needed to be adjusted was our energy, our attitude towards winning and our spirit. They were high-level the entire way."
IU had to be. It never led by more than seven points in the second half.
"This is a big game; it's definitely going to help us down the road," Watford said. "I feel like Michigan State is a great team, they never stop fighting. That's definitely how it's going to be in the (NCAA) Tournament, the Big Ten Tournament; teams are definitely not going to give up. It was a great team win for us."
And now, in the relentless world of Big Ten basketball, the Hoosiers have to do it again.
“After the game with the CBS interview, Greg Anthony said that this game had the feel and the execution of a Final Four game,” Crean said. “And I hope he’s right, because I think (Michigan State is) really, really good. For us to get this win in this environment, for us to make the plays that we made, especially at the end, for us to make the defensive stops that we made to get the buckets that we needed to get, I thought that was huge.
“You’ve got to be in some fights. We’ll get better from this, and I’m certain Michigan State will get better from this. If you’re going to win over the long haul, you’ve got to find ways. Our guys had great will.”
And that’s no joke.