BLOOMINGTON -- Sometimes, in the hyper-energetic basketball world of the hyper-energetic Tom Crean, even when you're playing in the spotlighted crucible that is the NCAA Tournament, you have to think like a kid.
Within reason, of course.
So as Crean's top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers (27-6) begin their national championship quest, starting Friday in Dayton against 16th-seeded James Madison (21-14), the coach has one over-riding message for his players:
“I want it to be fresh,” he says. “I want it to be exciting for these guys. I really do. They've earned it. They've done everything that's been asked of them, and more. They're held to an incredibly high standard -- individually and collectively.”
If you play basketball, you've had a One Shining Moment dream. Perhaps dozens of them. You wonder what it would be like to do so something so special, so spectacular, that you make it on that TV clip at the end of this March Madness spectacle that spills into April.
It won't happen by magic, although, for those of a certain age who grew up with Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone, you understood that magic COULD happen if you ignored the cynical pull of a cynical age.
And so, submitted for your approval:
1) Guard Bryce Drew hitting the buzzer-beating shot of a lifetime to lift 13th-seeded Valparaiso over fourth-seeded Mississippi 70-69 in the 1998 opener.
2) Coach Jim Valvano running around looking for somebody, anybody, to hug in the aftermath of North Carolina State's improbable 1983 national championship
3) And, of course, guard Keith Smart hitting the twisting, contested jumper that lifted Indiana past Syracuse 74-73 for the 1987 national championship.
And so much more.
Crean prefers hard work over magic. He understands last year's euphoria over making the NCAA tourney after three years of sanction-filled misery has given way to pressure-filled expectations. The No. 1 seed comes with a price.
“I don't think anybody is running around taking a deep breath and doing cartwheels over anything,” he says. “There is a business approach and businessmen mindset they have to have.”
And yet, before Sunday's selection show, Crean pushed everything but business.
“I told them I wanted them to watch this like you did when you were a little kid. That's why you work so hard -- to get in these situations.”
All the work in the world never got Crean to this situation as a player. At his playing best, he had a coaching future. Still, that never soured his love for the sport and NCAA tourney drama, where anything, it seemed, could happen.
“The first NCAA tournament game I saw in person was at Dayton,” Crean says. “I sat in the two or three rows from the top of the building. I was watching Michigan State play Washington. I'll never forget it.”
Apparently not. That was in 1986, when the Spartans, led by Scott Skiles, beat Washington 72-70 and Georgetown 80-68 before an overtime 96-86 Sweet 16 loss to top-seeded Kansas.
“It was unbelievable,” Crean says.
And then …
“Every time you watch the NCAA selection show, it should be like the first time you ever see it. You're never guaranteed to make it. So many things have to go right.”
IU got it right 27 times out of 33 this season to win the Big Ten championship and earn the No. 1 seed in the East Region.
“To be a No. 1 seed is special,” Crean says. “At no time did these guys work like they were special. This didn't get built with entitlement. It was built with incredible work. That's how they'll approach it.”
The Hoosiers had hoped to receive the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, which would have put them in Indianapolis for the Sweet 16 with a huge home court advantage. It didn't happen. Louisville got that honor and that Midwest Region path. IU will go to Washington D.C. if it wins two games in Dayton.
Crean isn't about to gripe about what might have been.
“The fact we're a No. 1 seed speaks for itself. There are four No. 1 seeds and we're one of them. That's a big deal.”
So is the extra class time the Dayton site and its Friday-Sunday game format presents. Academic improvement was just as big as basketball in rebuilding the Hoosiers from the Kelvin Sampson wreckage.
“We get a little more time in school,” Crean says. “We can use that.”
That's great, but Crean isn't making $3 million or so a year because of academic achievement. The Hoosiers have to win, and they have, with their sights focused on Atlanta and the Final Four.
When you look at the draw (No. 8 seed North Caroline State, No. 4 Syracuse, No. 3 Marquette and No. 2 Miami are the biggest apparent challenges), IU's path through the East Region seems easier -- with “easier” a relative term given the parity of college basketball and the unpredictability of this tournament -- than what Louisville will face in the Midwest Region
“Like anything else, there are a lot of different roads and paths you have to go through to get to your goals,” Crean says. “This is just one of them. This team has done a good job with that, constantly and consistently.
“The story lines keep changing. People were saying we couldn't win on the road -- yeah, we went 7-2 on the road this year. One thing after another they keep taking care of. That happens because they stay humble as to what they have to do to get better, and then they get better. That's our key.”
Crean keeps pushing that got-to-get better theme. He talks about self scouting and working on what needs to be addressed.
“That's been the focus. The whole goal is to be as good as we can be this week, win in Dayton and take it from there.”
That's not magic. That's reality.