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Indiana-Pitt: Tom Crean's Hoosiers Take Next Step with Jimmy V Classic Victory

Zachary OstermanCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - MARCH 12:  Verdell Jones III #12 of  the Indiana Hoosiers passes the ball against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the first round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 12, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

(Verdell Jones' 22 points spurred the Hoosiers to Tom Crean's 200th win Tuesday night.)

Suddenly, the normal looked possible, and it made all the difference.

For one night, it seemed Indiana could do so much of that which it has seemed incapable—ball control, free-throw shooting, shutdown defense, and most of all, defeating a respected opponent, this time in the merciless spotlight of Madison Square Garden.

"I told our coaches that this was the closest that we have come in our one-plus years here to transferring our practice over into a game," IU coach Tom Crean said afterward.

Yes, the Pittsburgh Panthers are a shell of the team that grabbed a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight. No, they have not beaten anyone of real consequence, and wouldn't even if they won out through the rest of 2009.

But so many of Indiana's problems—on the court, anyway—have been with the Hoosiers themselves.

Turning the ball over, shoddy defense, silly fouls, these are the things that have undone almost any progress Indiana has achieved this year. Not coincidentally, they are often the shortcomings of a young team.

But Tuesday night in New York, Indiana flipped that script.

The Hoosiers played strong defensively, actually registered more assists than turnovers, and forced their athletic, up-tempo style of play on an opponent not ready to handle it.

"The bottom line is that they really earned it," Crean said of his players after the win.

A fellow media member pointed out late in the game, when Indiana stretched its lead to as much as 17, that the progression of the game appeared the product of one team toughened by a challenging non-conference schedule, and the other weakened by an unimpressive one. To paraphrase, Indiana didn't look intimidated, and Pitt didn't look like it knew how to handle what was being thrown its way.

But what became the game's pivotal moments came at its end, when a flurry of Panther points and a full-court press brought the gap to just six and threatened the security of Tom Crean's 200th win.

Handed a similar situation last season, this team so often would fold. Tuesday night, they refused, and in doing so, took an all-important step in their development as a program.

For the last year and a half, Indiana has been college basketball's pity friend, the kid down the street you only invite to your party because your mother made you. The only way to shed that kind of stigma is by winning, something that must be learned.

It would be hard to argue that Crean has won a bigger game at Indiana than this one, against an under-talented but well-coached Big East team in one of the great castles of his sport. It's only a single step among many, but boy is it a big one.

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