A crucial win for Indiana

Tom Crean was heading into the locker room for his pregame talk when he heard that Pam Morgan, Maurice Creek’s mother, had just walked into the building.

Without thinking, Crean asked Morgan to come speak to his team, her son’s teammates.

“It could have gone a lot of different ways,’’ Crean said. “As it turned out, you could have heard a pin drop while she spoke and you couldn’t hold the guys back when she was done.’’

Spurred by Morgan’s speech and sensing a moment that was bigger than them, the Hoosiers stunned Michigan, 71-65, in their Big 10 opener.

Indiana as a program has had plenty of bigger wins but it may never have scored a more critical victory, at least not recently. As Crean tries to raise the Hoosiers from the ashes wrought by Kelvin Sampson’s scorched Earth, this goes down as more than a W.

It’s a character-marker for a young team trying to simultaneously establish its own identity and rebuild the program's identity as well.

Two days ago the Hoosiers were reeling. Creek, the top scoring freshman in the country and arguably the best player in pinstripes this year, went down with a fractured kneecap. The injury was so gruesome, his teammates looked away.

But the real effects of Creek’s injury didn’t hit home until after the rookie was carted off on a stretcher. There in the locker room after the game against Bryant, the Hoosiers came to grips with their new reality: They would be going forward without the player averaging 17.6 points per game. Crean admitted his players were stung and stunned and worried how they’d react.

He needn’t.

The Hoosiers not only played well, they played smart. No one tried to do more than he was capable of and no one got rattled when the game got close. Verdell Jones III scored 20, Christian Watford 19, Devan Dumes and Jordan Hulls each had 11 while Jeremiah Rivers corralled nine rebounds and despite scoring just four points, hit a critical 3-point play for the victory.

“No question this is a sign of the maturity of our program,’’ Crean said. “This is exactly how we have to progress.’’

It has been an especially difficult few days for Crean. The emotional coach said he hit more than a few low points with Creek when he walked into the training room and his player broke down in tears, when he saw him after surgery on Tuesday and when Morgan spoke to the team.

“She didn’t talk about Maurice, didn’t give us a medical update,’’ Crean said. “She talked about how happy she was that Maurice was around all of them and how lucky he was. She spoke from the heart. It was really strong. I had to walk out.’’

Crean was quick to point out that this was but one win and that the only reward the Hoosiers will receive is a delay in the start of practice on Friday: from 11:30 a.m. to noon.

But he also recognizes just how critical it was. He asked former players to come to this game and come to the locker room. He wanted his players to understand that going forward without Creek wasn’t just required, it was expected and that how they played wouldn’t just represent their own spirit but the spirit of the program.

“We can’t ever lose sight that Indiana always has been a program of great traditions,’’ he said. “It’s our job to enhance that.’’