Assembly Hall has not been kind to ranked teams. Nos. 1, 2 and 13 have lost on Indiana’s home floor this season, all victims of the long-promised and finally delivered resurgence of Hoosier hoops.
On Tuesday night, Indiana welcomes another ranked team to its home lair -- No. 5 Michigan State, with at least a portion of the Big Ten title already stuff in its hip pocket.
In the midst of game planning, the ever kinetic Tom Crean graciously took a few minutes to speak to ESPN.com about the game, his program’s arrival back to national prominence and about the new challenges the Hoosiers will face – namely how to handle the month of March.
How big is this game against Michigan State?
Tom Crean: It’s the next game, a home game in the last week of the regular-season, so it’s big for those reasons.
But they’re also the Big 10 champions and we want to see where we stand in light of that. Our players have gotten better all year long. We did some really good things against them the first time (an 80-65 loss for the Hoosiers) and some not so good things. We’re better since then and they’re better, so this is good to see where we are.
Your program has finally bounced back this season. What’s the next step?
TC: Winning close games consistently, I think that’s big. We’ve had some really good road wins, double-figure road wins.
But every part of winning for this team is new this year. A winning streak, the nonconference record, beating ranked teams -- highly ranked teams -- this is the first time this group has done any of that. You never take it for granted but it won’t be the first time anymore, so that’s a big deal.
That’s why they’ve matured so much through this season. The biggest thing to understand is why we’re successful when we’re successful. When this team has really embraced the physicality of the game and played possession by possession, that’s when they’ve been their best.
Speaking of first times, this will be the first time this team heads to March with serious expectations for the Big Ten Tournament and a guaranteed NCAA tournament trip. How will they handle it?
TC: We’ll see. As coaches, we’ve been through it, so you do what you do and you do what you know works, tailoring it to your particular team. This group really dives into films. We’re a team that makes adjustments. We game plan for each game -- how are we going to guard these screens? We don’t just do what we do. And they’ve been really good at that.
But the bigger we make it, the more overwhelming it gets. I don’t think anyone needs to do that. They already know how big it is. It’s our job to make sure they just go step by step.
How much are you personally looking forward to March?
TC: I think I’m excited more for our families. My family, I took them out of all of that. They were used to March Madness, to making NCAA trips, to going to New York for the Big East Tournament (when Crean was head coach at Marquette). I sort of took them out of that and they’re young, they didn’t get it. So I’m excited for them.
And how about for your players to finally experience the NCAA Tournament?
TC: The best thing is, this program is getting back to where we want it to be. Our players are going to experience things that they’ve earned. Nobody handed it to them, believe me. There wasn’t a group of people that got in a room and said, ‘Ok, this is how we rebuild Indiana basketball.’ These guys did the work. They fought their way up.
When I think about it, though, maybe that’s what Indiana has been built on all along. Nothing has ever been handed to people in this program. That’s why the tradition is so good. That’s why the fans stayed with it. They’ve all earned this.