How Indiana's Tom Crean coached his greatest game and scored his biggest win

Yahoo Sports

DES MOINES, Iowa – Tom Crean had just come down from the interview podium after describing how Indiana eliminated Kentucky from the NCAA tournament Saturday when he was accosted by his frazzled sports information director, J.D. Campbell.

Campbell debriefed Crean on several obligations, all of it sounding terribly urgent. And that's when Crean, one of the most famously intense grinders in college basketball, looked at Campbell and laughed.

"J.D., lighten up," Crean said. "You've got to enjoy it, man!"

This was, indeed, a moment to savor. This was the program's biggest win in 14 years, since making the 2002 Final Four. It was a triumph over a hated former rival that annually has the most talent in America. It was the biggest victory in Crean's eight seasons at Indiana – and it might have been his finest one-game coaching job, too. The box score from No. 5 seed Indiana 73, No. 4 Kentucky 67, will be suitable for framing in the Crean household.

So, hell yes, a coach who has been under siege from a large segment of the Indiana fan base for years was going to allow himself a few minutes of joy. He more than earned it.

After giving Campbell his chill-out talk, Crean hugged an old friend from the Marquette days who had come in for the game. He walked down the hallway with his teenage son, Riley, and suddenly there was former Kentucky great Karl-Anthony Towns, now tearing up the NBA. He had come in with Minnesota Timberwolves teammate and fellow former Wildcat Tayshaun Prince for the game.

Crean stopped and shook Towns' hand, then whipped his phone out of his pocket to take a picture of the NBA star with Riley. Why not? You've got to enjoy it, man.

Tom Crean directs Indiana during the Hoosiers' second-round win over Kentucky. (AP)
Tom Crean directs Indiana during the Hoosiers' second-round win over Kentucky. (AP)

A few steps later, longtime trainer Tim Garl joined the group striding toward the Indiana locker room. A reporter asked Crean about dealing with in-game injuries to Robert Johnson and Juwan Morgan – recurrences of ankle and shoulder issues, respectively, that the two have been dealing with in recent weeks.

"We've been down that road," Crean said. "They're going to be all right. Right, Tim?"

Crean laughed again and put a headlock on Garl. You've got to enjoy it, man.

There was, in the final analysis, so much for Crean and the entire Indiana fan base to enjoy about this victory. It was a microcosm of the entire overachieving season.

As with the season as a whole, the Hoosiers started slowly and looked bad for a while. They fell behind by seven points early, rallied to take the lead, then fell behind by seven again midway through the first half. Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, two of Indiana's three indispensible parts, had foul trouble.

At that point, surely some Indiana fans resumed doubting their coach, just as they had in November and December. They wanted to mobilize the firing squad for Crean last summer, after some off-court issues. And they wanted him gone after a bad trip to Maui that resulted in losses to Wake Forest and UNLV. And they absolutely were tired of Tom when the Hoosiers were blown out at Duke, dropping to 5-3.

In that postgame press conference, Crean calmly reminded everyone of the date. It was December 2. There was so much time left to get it right.

On the IU bench when Kentucky led 20-13, he could have calmly pointed at the clock. It read 8:24 left in the first half. There was so much time left to get it right.

And a guy who some critics say does nothing but pace and clap during games made a string of great decisions the rest of the way. In the caldron of NCAA tournament pressure, Crean was at his best.

He didn't bury Bryant and Williams on the bench after their second fouls. He kept using them in spots, not letting the game get away. And the Hoosiers kept right on guarding the nation's most efficient offense with a stellar gameplan. Assistant coach Chuck Martin supplied the scouting report, and Indiana executed it brilliantly.

"Chuck had them cold," Crean said.

And Indiana's defense kept Kentucky cold. The Hoosiers used a lot of length on shooting guard Jamal Murray, throwing 6-foot-7 Williams and 6-foot-8 O.G. Anunoby at him for stretches. They switched bigger men onto dynamic point guard Tyler Ulis as well.

"We wanted to be big on Ulis as much as we could," Crean said. "We wanted to keep him out of the lane. ... We wanted to do a good job of shrinking the floor on the ball screens, not letting Murray get exactly where he wanted to go."

Ulis and Murray combined for 43 points – but it took them 38 shots to get there. And Ulis, whose assist-to-turnover ratio has been a spectacular 7-to-2, wound up with three assists and four turnovers. It was his first game since Jan. 12 to have more turnovers than assists.

But even with a terrific gameplan that was well-executed, adversity arose. Hoosiers started falling and not getting up.

Indiana's Yogi Ferrell (11) and Max Bielfeldt (0) celebrate after leading the Hoosiers over Kentucky. (AP)
Indiana's Yogi Ferrell (11) and Max Bielfeldt (0) celebrate after leading the Hoosiers over Kentucky. (AP)

Robert Johnson, whose two 3-pointers helped keep Indiana in contention early, reinjured a sprained left ankle with five minutes left in the first half and did not return. Then backup forward Juwan Morgan was pulled down with 12 minutes left in the game and reinjured his left shoulder.

Again, season in a microcosm: the Hoosiers only played 13 games with leading scorer James Blackmon Jr., before losing him for the season to a knee injury. They adapted then, and they adapted now.

The injury to Johnson robbed Crean of his most athletic guard, and the injury to Morgan took away a versatile backup who Indiana had planned to use at point guard when linchpin Yogi Ferrell was given a brief break. Instead, Crean improvised.

With 7:44 left in the game and the score tied at 50, Crean left Ferrell on the bench coming out of a TV timeout. The senior iron man had come out shortly before the timeout – and a tie game with the Sweet 16 on the line and less than eight minutes to play seemed like a risky time to go even a possession or two without your best player.

But Crean put the gifted-but-mercurial Williams at point, inserted former Division II transfer Ryan Burton, and went with it. Coming out of the timeout, Crean called a play for Bryant in the post. The freshman took the feed from Williams, wheeled on fellow five-star recruit Skal Labissiere, scored and was fouled. He sank the free throw, and then Burton grabbed a defensive rebound, and Williams fed Anunoby for a 3, and John Calipari had to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.

Indiana led the rest of the way in a high-level game between two teams that were too good to match up this early in the Big Dance. It was a triumph of focus, but also flexibility. Stuff happened, and the Hoosiers adapted and overcame it. Calipari was the coach who ran out of answers and options, while Crean kept finding them.

"At our first meeting [Friday] we said the whole game is coming down to mental toughness," Crean said. "... It's about being absolutely locked into what we need to do. If we had spent all that time caught up in the Indiana-Kentucky game, we wouldn't be able to beat the Kentucky players.

"No question, it's great for the state and university. It's great for all Hoosier Nation."

And it's great for the man who has been the object of so much Hoosier Nation ire in recent years. Tom Crean earned the right to laugh a little after beating Kentucky. You've got to enjoy it, man.

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