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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Indiana's Yogi Ferrell and Illinois' Tracy Abrams battle for a rebound during the second half on Friday.

Still plenty of drama left for Hoosiers

Four days later, the dance is over, and, no, not that Dance. This dance involved a basketball and a rim, two old and contentious partners. And it seemed to last forever.

One bounce. Another bounce. Another … another … gravity yawning, stretching, taking cruel pleasure in drawing out the moment as Michigan's last gasp jittered around the iron …

And then, at last, fell off.

And a universe of tension collapsed in an instant.

Here was Indiana, celebrating a wholly improbable victory over Michigan and – say what? – its first outright Big Ten title in 20 years. Here was Victor Oladipo, the weight of the day abruptly gone, bursting into tears. And over here, Tom Crean, who five years ago inherited not a basketball program but a smoking crater, was suddenly all up in Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer's grill, yapping like a terrier and then walking off with an odd little smile on his face.

And now we know where the suspense will lie this week in Chicago, and then wherever the Hoosiers land as a lock No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

To wit: Exactly when and where will Tom Crean's head explode?

It's a facetious question, of course. But what close observer hasn't wondered about it?

Likely there are people out there more tightly wrapped than Indiana's basketball coach, but Travis Bickle was just a fictitious character in "Taxi Driver," and Dwight Schrute, whose haircut Crean has appropriated, lives only in "The Office." Here in the real world, we have Crean – who, even in victory, will occasionally bristle at a reporter's question, and is so spring-loaded you expect his every footfall to give off a soft "booiiing."

And so here he was, in his greatest moment of triumph so far at Indiana, going after Meyer, a former assistant in the benighted Kelvin Sampson era at IU. It was bizarre and inexplicable, given the circumstance. And it was as perfectly in character for Crean as the apology he extended to Meyer before the wheels on the IU team plane even went up in Ann Arbor.

This is a manic, combative, obsessed piece of work here, anchored to a core of basic decency. And all of it is exactly why Indiana is where it is today, because that manic combativeness has produced a basketball team that will fight you to the last breath, and the obsession has produced one that rarely loses its focus when the pressure comes down fiercest.

Crean may stalk the sidelines and snarl and crash his palms together until they surely must be crimson, but the team he's put together seems to get calmer as he grows more animated. It's a fascinating thing to watch, and so much of it comes from its shared experience. Once you've seen 6-25 or 10-21 or 12-20, after all, what's a five-point hole with 52 seconds to play?

And so in retrospect, maybe it wasn't so odd Crean chose the moment he chose to vent, because, yes, Sampson did wreck the program, and to a degree that stunned even Crean. It has been a hard road back for all of them, and so every step of it will be fiercely defended.

Which explains, of course, why Crean will not take his foot off the throttle even now, with little of substance to play for in the Big Ten tournament.

"What you do is, you continue to pace your team the right way," he said this week. "But to me, you have to go in with the intention of winning every game that you play."

As ever.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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