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COLUMN: Even after Big Ten title, Hoosiers still the underdogs, and they're loving it

Indiana claimed the Big Ten title outright with an 81-78 at Iowa on Tuesday night. But even after the title, the Hoosiers still aren't getting a lot of respect. That's just fine with them. My column.

Sharing is no fun. Nobody wants to share [except socialists like Bernie Sanders, but that's another story].

Kids don't want to share their Skittles with their siblings. Students don't want to share their work with others assigned to their group. 

And Indiana had no interest sharing the Big Ten title with any other team. There can be only one champion, and a share of the title is essentially an acknowledgment that you're not a champion. You get a share of the title, but you're not a champion.

Indiana is a champion now, and it must share its title with no one. 

The Hoosiers (24-6, 14-3 Big Ten) accomplished that feat on Tuesday night, when they went into Iowa City on the Hawkeyes' Senior Night and ruined any celebration Fran McCaffery and Co. had planned with an 81-78 win. 

Playing without Robert Johnson (ankle) for the second straight game, No. 12 Indiana controlled the pace and outworked the 16th-ranked Hawkeyes from start to finish. And when Iowa made a run and winning time came, the Hoosiers didn't fold like they have at times over the years. They weren't afraid.

"We knew they were gonna make a run," said Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell. "They punched us back, and we just had to punch back a little harder."

Indiana is a champion for a number of reasons, one of the biggest reasons being it has learned how to close. Anybody can hang with good teams for 35 minutes. Lots of teams can be in position for a season-defining win. Only the best teams -- only champions -- can do what it takes to win those games in the final minutes, time after time after time.

And so when winning time came on Tuesday, Yogi Ferrell dribbled away the clock with Indiana leading by two and less than a minute remaining. He moved to the left wing against Iowa's Mike Gessell, crossed over twice, and rose up for a 3 as the shot clock was about to expire.

Buckets. Dagger. Game over.

ESPN
ESPN

"There's nobody like him," said freshman center Thomas Bryant. "Yogi doesn't get enough respect that he should. When you see this guy's work ethic, and how much he works and how much he loves the game ... you have to show this guy so much respect. You have to realize this guy is the real deal."

The season is far from over -- Indiana closes the regular season at home against Maryland on Sunday -- but the Hoosiers have accomplished a goal nobody outside the program thought possible. And in so doing, they've taught all of us about overcoming adversity -- especially in the social media era -- and turning it into achievement.

Tom Crean and Indiana hit rock bottom in Maui, and then began to bury their heads in those rocks after an embarrassing loss at Duke. The noise reached perhaps its highest level during the Crean era. I got hundreds of tweets every day simply expressing something negative about Crean. When I posted a story highlighting Indiana's soft start to the Big Ten schedule, I got nothing but negative and sometimes vulgar responses.

In the minds of the majority of the Indiana fan base, this team was done, Crean was headed out the door, and the Indiana basketball program was once again in shambles. 

That was in December, folks. Just over two months ago.

Take a second and imagine yourself in that situation. Seemingly everybody is against you, even those in Bloomington. Crean's daughter had to hear an Indiana professor make an April Fool's joke that her father had been fired last spring. Crean's son heard chants of "Crean sucks" when he entered a game for Bloomington North.

Many people -- and teams -- in such situations turn on one another and fold. I've seen it many times before. 

And knowing Crean like I do, a couple of years ago, I think all of the noise and pressure would have been too much for him. He was hooked on Twitter. Read many of his replies. Read most of what any media member wrote about it. Read it all. Heard it all.

But Crean, even being the veteran coach that he is, learned and evolved. He realized that his obsession with reading anything and everything was not good for him or his team. Even if you convince yourself that you don't care what anybody else thinks or says, you're bound to internalize some of it when you read it constantly. It's basic human nature.

Crean got off Twitter. He stopped reading so much written about him and more about ways he and his team could improve. Positive things. Motivational things.

The cleanup dates to last year, when Crean dismissed a program cancer in Hanner Mosquera-Perea, a cancer that negatively affected to many within the IU program. Those that didn't want to follow the rules and completely buy in were shown the door. 

But even after that, Crean's team reached the edge of a cliff after the blowout loss to Duke. They had two choices: Give up and jump off, or walk in another direction and find another way to the other side.

By now you know which way Crean and the Hoosiers chose, but it's the way in which they forged that new path that is most impressive and noteworthy. They blocked out every bit of outside noise, and they refused to allow negative results affect the next day. A loss on a Wednesday stayed with Wednesday, and when Thursday came around, the energy was positive and the goal was to learn from the lessons of the day before. 

"He never gave up on us. He kept believing in us," Ferrell said of Crean. "What he wanted to do especially was to prove the doubters wrong. We're basically following his lead. He never got worried. I felt like, when we look back at him, in his eyes, we see that he thinks we can win. When we see that, I feel like all of us think we can win."

Crean is a workaholic, a perfectionist of sorts. And in the past, those traits have sometimes led him to push his teams too hard too early, leaving them gassed when March rolled around.

Once again, Crean adapted. With this particular team, with its large number of new faces, Crean slowed things down. He tapered off practices as the year went on. He wanted to hit singles every day instead of swinging for home runs.

Day by day.

That's the quote Crean and his players have used at press conferences all year. It's as cliche as they come in sports, but it's the way this team has approached the season, and it's the reason they are where they are.

Indiana has progressed steadily, and it has learned to turn adversity into opportunity. James Blackmon's injury became an opportunity for OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan. Robert Johnson's injury became an opportunity for Nick Zeisloft. 

And through that process, this group, this team, has become special. They play for one another, and they have a chemistry that few teams are ever fortunate enough to develop. It's a family now, one that has seen the bottom and stuck together during the long climb to the top. 

"I probably don't have all the words figured out yet, I just know it's an absolute honor to be with them every day," Crean said. "I love them as much now as I loved them in the Duke locker room because I believed in them then. We had a lot of room to get better, and we weren't there yet, but the ingredients were there."

That's two outright Big Ten titles in four years for Crean and Indiana, but this one is different. The last time, with Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller in the 2012-13 season, Indiana was the hunted. The Hoosiers were ranked No. 1 for much of the year, and they peaked in the middle of the season. By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, they were beat up and tired. They lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16.

This Indiana team is still getting better and better, and surprisingly enough, the Hoosiers remain somewhat of an underdog. No matter what they've done this season, the national perception still seems to be that Indiana is not a true contender. Not a true champion.

And you know what, these Hoosiers are just fine with that. Whether they're the favorites or the underdogs, these Hoosiers are out to kill in every game they play. Don't believe in these guys? That's just fine with them. Nobody's believed in them from the beginning, but they wouldn't know or care about that. These Hoosiers believe in each other, and that's gotten them this far.

Everything about this team and this season is equal parts surprising and remarkable. In a matter of months, Crean went from the hot seat to the favorite for Big Ten Coach of the Year. In the matter of months, Yogi Ferrell transformed from a good Indiana player into an IU legend.

In the matter of months, a team that didn't guard anybody and gave the ball away to anyone that wanted it, ranks 65th in defense and has cut its turnovers down significantly.

In the matter of months, a three-loss team buried alive and left for dead became a Big Ten champion and a Final Four contender.

"They will speak up on each other, and not just in the film room," Crean said. "When you're connected like that, and you care about one another, you take that in a good way. There's not a, 'Well, why are you getting on me?' When you don't know each other real well it's real easy to have it be the other way. And we probably went through that a little bit early in the season. We just weren't experienced enough."

You learn the most about people during times of adversity. When this group of Indiana Hoosiers went through that adversity, they bonded together as one, and achieved what nobody gave them a chance to achieve. These Indiana Hoosiers became Big Ten champions.

"It's special, man," Ferrell said. "We stayed together the entire year. We had a few losses here and there, but I thought we battled back."

Stories like this, ladies and gentlemen, are why we love sports.


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