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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Indiana forward Cody Zeller tries to win the rebound from Michigan forward Jordan Morgan on Feb. 1. Michigan won 68-56.

IU makes crazy talk a reality

Winter calling in sick. Peyton Manning headed to the curb with the recycling. A benchwarmer from Harvard lighting up Kobe Bryant.

OK, so there’s been a lot of stuff lately you never thought you’d see.

But Indiana University winning 20 basketball games? You mean now?

Why, that’s just crazy talk.

Back there in the unsuspecting autumn, before we’d seen that first 60-degree January day or some economics major named Jeremy Lin put a clown suit on Kobe and the Lake Show, you could answer “What will Indiana do this year?” with three letters: N, I, T. Yeah, Cody the Kid would be good. Maybe all the other various Oladipos, Hullses and Watfords would be a smidge better. Fifteen or 16 wins looked possible.

But 20? Wins over No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State? A thorough pasting of Purdue, in West Lafayette?

Sure, and people would actually take Newt Gingrich seriously, too.

But Newt won a primary and buds started appearing on trees in February, and the other night, after the Hoosiers topped Illinois 84-71, IU coach Tom Crean was heard to say this: “There’s no question that our awareness is improving.”

Right back at ya, Coach.

The win over Illinois last week put the Hoosiers at 19 wins, and, with five games left against teams that are all in the bottom half of the Big Ten, our awareness is improving, too. Which is to say, it’s clear now that benchmark 20th win is not just imminent but merely a beginning.

This is an Indiana team headed for 22, 23, maybe 24 wins – the toughest game it has left is at home to a Michigan State team that just broke Ohio State’s 39-game home winning streak – and almost certainly a high NCAA tournament bid. The Big Ten, after all, has the highest combined RPI in the nation. As many as eight conference teams, and maybe more, seem poised to get into the Dance.

Who saw this coming? At least this soon?

Oh, maybe Crean did, a little. But to listen to him these days is to hear a man who seems as slack-jawed as anyone at how, first of all, Zeller has met or exceeded all expectations, and how the others have jelled around him.

“These guys, their work ethics are fantastic,” he said the other night. “I think guys are adding things to their game. I think we’re getting better in the post, especially post defense. I think we’re getting better in the post, especially post defense. There’s no question that our awareness is improving and I think that’s a huge part of defense.

“I think our rebounding is much better. I think our ball movement is much better … ”

On and on. Clearly this is a man in love with his basketball team right now, and maybe a bit confounded as well by all this sudden good fortune after the struggle of the previous three seasons. And that’s even though he knows the struggle is still defining his program, in good ways and bad.

“We went through a little drought where we kind of forgot that edge that you got to have, especially after we beat Ohio State,” he says. “I think anytime where you have success like that and you haven’t had as much a group, it’s real easy to fall off a little bit and I think we did.

“But, I think we got that back.”

Who knew?

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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