Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
A glowing Tom Crean walked to the podium while making small talk with some of the dozens of reporters inside the room.
His squad had just decisively beaten the then-No. 10-ranked Ohio State men’s basketball team, 81-68, and notched the program’s first road win against a top 10-ranked team in 13 years – a feat almost unfathomable when thinking about the pedigree associated with Indiana basketball.
Crean, often known for his shortness and seeming discontent with media following a loss, was long-winded with his answers and extensive in his praise of the Buckeyes.
“Ohio State,” he started, “is the real deal.”
Crean explained why.
“They’re the real deal because they have a front line, they’re the real deal because they have a backcourt,” he said. “But most importantly, (it’s) because they absolutely get up into you defensively and make it hard to score.”
The pillars of Crean’s praise, though, were hard to see during the game Sunday.
It was hard to see against a Hoosiers squad that featured three players – senior forward Christian Watford, junior guard Victor Oladipo and sophomore center Cody Zeller – who scored 20 or more points against one of the best statistical defenses in the country.
It was hard to see without sophomore center Amir Williams, who played just 11 minutes because of foul trouble, brawling for rebounds underneath the iron.
And it was hard to see considering this was a team that had taken such leaps and bounds in defeat against then No. 3-ranked Michigan Feb. 5 in Ann Arbor.
That Buckeyes team, the one that was nicked, 76-74, by the Wolverines in overtime, failed to make the trip back to Columbus against Indiana, said junior guard Aaron Craft.
“We definitely didn’t have the same effort we had last game,” Craft said. “That’s on us.”
That is probably just part of the story; just half of the truth as to how OSU got beat by a team still coming off a last second loss to unranked Illinois Thursday.
“We thought we had our minds right,” said OSU junior forward Deshaun Thomas. “We felt pretty good off that Michigan game even though we lost. We knew we was gonna come back and fight.”
For a half, OSU did exactly that.
But like he has most of the season, Thomas, who led the Buckeyes (17-6, Big Ten 7-4) with 26 points, found himself carrying his team offensively for most of the game against the Hoosiers.
Maybe the OSU team that crumbled in the second half against Indiana was reflective of the actual competency of OSU coach Thad Matta’s crew, now 23 games into the season.
Maybe the Buckeyes’ effort against Michigan was as much an anomaly as their 19-point loss against Illinois more than a month ago.
Beyond its immediate implications on a callously competitive race for the Big Ten championship, Sunday’s loss might have been a changing of the guard in a conference that’s seen OSU win at least a share of five titles since Matta’s arrival in 2004.
Indiana hasn’t captured a regular season Big Ten title since 2002.
Even more recently, Indiana basketball has struggled to find its fitting in the Big Ten – even after Crean was hired in 2008 to bring the program back to its former majesty.
In his first three seasons at the helm in Bloomington, Ind., Crean totaled an 8-46 record in conference play, including a 6-25 overall record and 1-17 conference mark in 2008-09.
“Ohio State is really, really good,” Crean said. “And we have, at times, not had the firepower to be able to compete with them.”
It’s a notion that is inherently backward considering Indiana’s status as a member of the “Who’s Who” list of college basketball’s blue bloods with five national championships and a laundry list of the sport’s greatest players and coaches.
It’s also a notion that seemed to evaporate Sunday.
Despite shooting a modest 42 percent from the floor and outrebounding the Hoosiers, 33-30, OSU’s efforts were futile against an Indiana team that seems to have found its place back among the sport’s elite.
“We kinda,” said senior forward Evan Ravenel before pausing and shaking head, “just didn’t have it today. That shouldn’t be the case but that’s just what it was.”