Tuesday, March 5, 2013

'Locked-in' IU Set To Clinch Outright Big Ten Title

Do not think, for one minute, that Indiana is going to blow this Big Ten opportunity.

The Hoosiers understand the opportunity. Win tonight at home against Ohio State and they earn their first outright conference title since 1993. Win Sunday at Michigan, where no visiting team has won all season, and they almost certainly clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tourney.

First, though, comes the No. 14 Buckeyes. IU smacked them around last month in Value City Arena. They’d love to return the favor tonight, especially on Senior Night in the final home games for Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston.

That won’t happen.

The Hoosiers reached this position last weekend after beating Iowa on Saturday, and then, just as practice was beginning on Sunday, learning that Michigan State and Wisconsin had lost. That meant IU had a 13-3 Big Ten record with two games to go, while Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan were tied for second with 11-5 marks. Indiana had clinched at least a co-championship, its 21st. Only Purdue, with 22, has won more in Big Ten history.

Crean watched Michigan hold off Michigan State in his Cook Hall office as his players were warming up, then joined them with the news.

"We're extremely excited about the fact that we have clinched at least a share of this going into this week, a big week obviously with a home game against Ohio State and a road game to finish up the regular season at Michigan," Crean said. "The great thing about our guys is once they learned it, they were excited, but within minutes went right back to work inside of practice. It is kind of a microcosm of how this season has gone. They've really been locked into moment and what's most important, which is getting better.

"We're excited to be where we are at but we know there's a lot more things to accomplish, and I think that's what makes it exciting to go through with this group because they really want to improve and get better."

That starts with beating Ohio State (21-7 overall) to avoid having to share the title. Michigan State was in the same position last year with two games to go and lost them both.

“It’s something that we’ve been working for all year, so it’s obviously exciting for us,” forward Cody Zeller said. “But it’s only a share of the Big Ten championship. We were right back to work to getting this win and having it all to ourselves.”

That it would also mean a lot to the seniors, who endured so much losing in their first two seasons, is another motivator.

“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.”

Added Zeller: “It would mean a lot, because we’ve only heard stories of all the stuff they’ve gone through before me and Yogi were here. I know it would mean a lot to them.”

IU’s loss last week at Minnesota knocked it down just one spot, to No. 2 behind Gonzaga.

Crean was asked during the Big Ten teleconference if he was surprised that such a tradition-rich program as Indiana hadn’t won an outright conference title since 1993.

"I don't really think of it like that. I think it shows it's a hard league and all we can focus on is what we have in the seasons that we've been here," Crean said. "When you think about 1993, all the things that have transpired in the league, it goes to show how great this league has been over a period of time.

"There's been a lot of great teams, and Indiana has been one of them for a long time. Our focus has been: How do we keep doing what we've been doing and how do we do it even better? There's not been a lot of time spent on what didn't happen before we were here."

Crean has endured his own Cream ‘n Crimson tribulations. IU had three straight 20-loss seasons, the worst stretch in a program history that stretches well past a hundred years, as he rebuilt from the Kelvin Sampson mess.

The Hoosiers went 27-9 and reached the Sweet 16 last year. Now their 25-4 overall and positioned to win a national championship.

"The one thing that all of us have learned that came from different programs and came to Indiana and dealt with everything that happened is you never take winning for granted,” Crean said. “Ever. When you lose it, it is so hard to get it back. You have to work that much harder to get it back. Our fans need to really look at it as there's a ton of excitement around it right now, let's remember where we were. Let's not take anything for granted and let's keep building on what's been happening."


Big news for Indiana’s football program: it has landed a four-star receiver in Taj Williams from Florida. He’s part of the 2013 class. That means coach Kevin Wilson now has five four-star players in this 23-player group.

The 6-4 Williams is rated as the nation’s No. 25 receiver according to Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service that first broke the news. He picked Indiana over Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Florida State and others.

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