- Jason King
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Tom Crean never crossed halfcourt, so this wasn't exactly a victory lap. Still, as he zig-zagged across the Assembly Hall hardwood late Saturday night, it was obvious the Indiana coach was caught up in the moment.
Flanked by two police officers and nearly encircled by television cameras, Crean waved to the students who had spent the past two hours going hoarse behind the south basket. "Thank you," he mouthed. "Thank you so much."
Then the coach spun on his heels and pointed toward the folks in the high-dollar seats at midcourt and the players' family members behind the bench, flailing his arms as the cheers grew louder. When he finally made his grand exit, the coach exchanged high-fives with the kiddos who lined his path to the locker room.
"Good job tonight," Crean told them. "Thanks for coming. Good job tonight."
It was quite the celebration, to be sure -- especially for a win in early February. But if any regular-season game deserved a curtain call, the third-ranked Hoosiers' 81-73 victory over No. 1 Michigan was certainly it.
Heck, the Wolverines probably should've taken a bow, too.
"Sometimes," Crean said, "when there is so much attention and hoopla and hype surrounding a game, it can't live up to it.
"This one did."
Indeed, with 17,472 looking on from the stands and millions of others watching at home, Indiana and Michigan played one of the more intense, high-level games of the season on a frigid night in Bloomington.
Cody Zeller scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and Christian Watford added 14 and 10 to propel Crean's Hoosiers past the Wolverines in a clash featuring the top two teams in the Big Ten -- and, arguably, the country.
With the victory, Indiana will likely replace Michigan as the nation's No. 1-ranked team when the next Associated Press poll is released Monday. Anyone who watched Saturday's game, however, likely won't vote the Wolverines very far behind. No. 2, perhaps -- or No. 3 at worst behind Indiana and Florida.
"We knew Michigan was really, really good," Crean said. "But after being on the court with them for a couple of hours, they're even better than I thought."
Trey Burke scored a game-high 25 points for the Wolverines and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 18. But Saturday belonged to Indiana, whose performance was even more impressive considering all the elements that could've easily distracted the Hoosiers and caused them to lose focus in their most important game of the season.
The Indiana-Michigan tilt was the focal point of ESPN's "College GameDay." The festivities began at 10 a.m., when students crammed into Assembly Hall for the live, hourlong morning broadcast featuring Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Co. Most of the Hoosiers huddled in the locker room and chuckled as Zeller and Victor Oladipo answered questions during a live on-court interview.
The team was introduced a short time later, and then Crean told everyone to go home and rest. Not just the players, but the fans, too. Indiana didn't allow students to start standing in line until 3 p.m.
"We wanted them to have energy, too," Crean said. "We needed them. They were huge for us tonight."
From the opening tip to the final horn, Assembly Hall was as loud as any college basketball venue in America. In the first half a student who may have had a few too many attempted to sit on the end of Indiana's bench. Former NBA star Tim Hardaway -- the father of the Wolverines guard -- was taunted as he screamed at officials and made the choke sign. At intermission people sang along to a rap song about Indiana basketball.
"We got banners on the waaaaalllll. This is how we baaaaaalllll. Talkin' bout the Hoo-Hoo-Siers. Talkin' about the Hoo-Hoo-Siers!"
Indiana fed off the emotion early, hitting its first six shots (including four 3-pointers) and jumping out to a 26-11 lead.
"I thought we were about to put them away right there," point guard Yogi Ferrell said.
But that was hardly the case. Michigan clawed back and only trailed 36-32 at intermission, and it was 40-40 early in the second half when Nik Stauskas made all three free throws after being fouled by IU's Jordan Hulls on a shot from beyond the arc.
"We got hit in the mouth," Hulls said. "We had to hit right back."
The Hoosiers did.
Hulls and Will Sheehey both made 3-pointers in an 11-0 run that gave Indiana a 51-40 lead and a momentum it would never relinquish. At one point, Crean became so animated on the sidelines -- pacing back and forth and encouraging the crowd to rev up its cheers -- that he almost slipped.
Asked after the game about becoming emotional on the sideline, Crean said: "Why not? I was uptight enough the last couple of days. I wanted to enjoy it, too. Sometimes you smell momentum and you want to try to make that move."
Indiana's biggest dagger came after a three-point play by Burke that narrowed Indiana's lead to 61-58 with 4:53 remaining. On the very next possession, Oladipo found Hulls alone in the left corner for a 3-pointer that extended IU's bulge to six, 64-58.
Michigan never got closer than four after that.
"It was two good teams playing," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Somebody was going to win that game. We didn't. Our kids held their own. We're an extremely young, young team. We had four freshmen out there a lot, and they did well."
Beilein knows the Wolverines will get better, and Crean is confident his squad can improve, too. The Hoosiers have already made tremendous strides since Dec. 15, when they lost their No. 1 ranking following an overtime setback against Butler.
The most noticeable difference the last few weeks is Indiana's ball movement on offense. The Hoosiers are sharing the ball better and, as a result, getting high-quality looks at the basket.
"We know when we play team basketball we're pretty tough to beat," Watford said. "We put an emphasis on it. Our best games have come when we've done that."
Zeller and Oladipo -- both of whom are Wooden Award candidates -- have been the marquee players for Indiana this season. But on Saturday all five starters scored in double figures.
"I've got two brothers-in-law going to the Super Bowl tomorrow," Crean said, "and their whole mantra for their guys is 'the team, the team, the team.' One thing I heard a long time ago is that the star of the team is the team."
Crean's wife, Joani, is the sister of Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. The couple was scheduled to leave for New Orleans for Sunday's Super Bowl at 10 a.m.
The trip will be a quick one, as Crean needs to prepare his team for Thursday's game against pesky Illinois in Champaign. He said he's not worried about Saturday's win -- or a potential No. 1 ranking -- going to the Hoosiers' heads.
"That's not what they play for," he said. "When they lose sight of what's most important -- which is how you play together and you work and improve together - then you have issues.
"We don't plan to have any issues. We plan to stay locked in and not let any of the nice things or the negative things become a driving force for them."
If the Hoosiers do that, then who knows what could be in store. The Wolverines likely feel the same way. Each team is now 20-2 overall, and there is no reason to believe that either squad will regress.
"Let's hope that when we meet at the end of the year we're all playing for something really big," Crean said.
Crean was referring to the regular-season finale between the Hoosiers and Wolverines on March 10. But after Saturday no one would be surprised to see three more meetings between the two squads. Once in Ann Arbor, once in the title game of the Big Ten tournament.
And maybe, just maybe, in the Final Four.
Win that game, and Crean's on-court celebration would be something to see.