With his team leading Georgetown by two with 19 seconds left in the second half of Tuesday night’s Legends Classic championship game, Indiana coach Tom Crean paced rapidly in front of the Hoosiers bench, flailing his arms like he was fighting off a mugger as he urged the Barclays Center crowd to stand up and cheer on his defense.
Crean’s animated display didn’t have the desired effect in the short term, as Hoyas star Otto Porter hit a running layup to send the game to overtime a few seconds later. But after the Hoosiers put on a clinic in the extra period en route to an 82-72 win, Crean made it clear that his team’s toughest game to date was as fun as it looked.
“This would have been one of those games where it would have been a lot of fun to be up there cheering like crazy or watching from home, and the only thing I could imagine would be more fun than that would be coaching in it,” Crean said. “The only thing I could imagine would be even better than coaching in it is playing in it, and I think everybody that played tonight absolutely left it out there.”
With the win, along with Monday’s 66-53 victory over Georgia, the top-ranked Hoosiers moved to 5-0 on the young season. After routs in tune-up games before the trip to Brooklyn, Indiana finally got a taste of what a season at the top of the heap will be like, with every opponent gunning to fell the nation’s top dog.
“It lets us know where we’re at,” said Indiana guard Jordan Hulls, who received tournament MVP honors after averaging 15.5 points for the two games. “We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot, and Georgetown and Georgia, they were two really good teams that pushed us. We learned a lot about ourselves in terms of how good we can be when we play the way we want to play.”
There were times over the course of the two-day event when one couldn’t help but question how this team was supposed to be the best in the country. But Indiana’s veteran squad, which returns four full-time starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team, along with junior forward Will Sheehey, who started the Hoosiers’ final 11 games, had other shining moments when it looked every bit the part of a national championship contender.
And as far as Crean is concerned, that’s how it should be this early on.
“We certainly didn’t play great,” Crean said. “There’s not one area I would look at and say, ‘OK, we were just dominant in that area,’ but we kept getting better. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and I think I’d be really nervous in November if there wasn’t places where we could get better.”
In addition to the play of Hulls and preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller, the sophomore who scored 17 points and had eight rebounds as he battled a wicked cold, Indiana also received reliable play out of freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell and junior guard Victor Oladipo. Ferrell scored 14 points, including a clutch 3-pointer in overtime to seal the win.
There was no overwhelming star for the Hoosiers in either of their wins, but as Crean pointed out after Tuesday’s game, that’s kind of the point. That’s why they are where they are and other teams aren’t.
“We keep trying to stress to these guys, it’s not the quantity of your minutes, it’s the quality of your play,” Crean said. “If the quality of your play is high, you’re going to be happy. If you’re looking for quantity in minutes, we’re probably not a good program (for you) right now.
"We’ve got too many guys. It’s easy to talk about it, but it’s a whole other thing to believe in that and have the maturity to do it.”
In Tuesday’s championship, Indiana received all it could handle from the unranked Hoyas, who got 15 points out of Porter, 20 out of Markel Starks and 12 from Greg Whittington, whom Crean called one of the NCAA’s underrated future stars, and 11 from Mikael Hopkins.
Some will call the Hoosiers’ close call as a sign that Indiana is overrated. But it’s probably more fair to say that Georgetown, which was picked to finish fifth in the Big East, deserves more credit than it was getting before it kicked off the tournament with a convincing win over No. 11 UCLA.
“They’re long and athletic, and they don’t deviate from what (coach) John (Thompson III) wants — they really don’t,” Crean said. “It’s not a team of athletes, it’s a team of basketball players that are extremely athletic. … You’re not going to keep them from doing too many things because they put too many guys on the court that can make plays.”
Added Thompson: “We’re still growing up. You hope to grow up without losses, but hopefully this will help. We’ve had a lot of guys out there in situations they’ve never been in before.”
In the end, Indiana’s experience was the difference in front of a mostly pro-Hoosiers crowd in Brooklyn. There’s a good chance that’ll be the case more often than not this season.
Crean’s team has all the makings of a national champion, but so do Louisville and Ohio State and Michigan and Duke — the list goes on and on. There’s not one tremendously elite roster that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the country, and college basketball supremacy won’t be handed to anyone.
The Hoosiers certainly deserved their first preseason No. 1 ranking since 1979, but as Georgetown and Georgia reminded them, they’re going to have to earn it if they want to hold onto the nation’s top spot.
“They’ve got to find a way to win, and that’s all they talked about,” Crean said. “We talked tonight about, ‘You’ve got to do what’s required tonight. You don’t have to be at your very best, but you have to do what’s required to win the game.’”
Said Zeller: “Everyone’s just trying to find their roles right now, and to be in a close game like that where you really have to play to your strengths to get the win, I think it was really good for us. It’ll pay off for us later in the season.”