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Ben Smith

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Indiana's Christian Watford celebrates with teammates, from left, Will Sheehey, Verdell Jones III and Victor Oladipo after Indiana defeated Kentucky 73-72 on Dec. 10 in Bloomington. Watford hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal the victory.

Return of Hoosier Hysteria

So here is what “Watford For The Win” has wrought, on a Sunday night thick with summer. The man with the nut-brown tan and Little Rascals hair opens his mouth, and we all lean in. Tom Crean speaks, and we hang on every syllable.

The TV folks. The radio and newspaper folks. The guy from Rivals.com.

Don the Mastodon.

Yes, that’s him back there at one of the table downstairs here at Autumn Ridge Golf Club, and he’s not alone. Mean Jean from the Derby Girls rests her giant papier-mâché chin in her hands. Next to her, The Mad Ant’s maroon antennae quiver.

And here is your truism for today: Own the mascots, and you own the room.

And the state. And SportsCenter. And the nation, too, at least to an extent you haven’t since the blood-and-thunder days of Robert Montgomery Knight.

Twenty-seven wins and a visit to the Sweet 16 put Indiana basketball back in a place from which it should never really have fallen, but of course that’s not what really did it. What really did it, Crean says, was “Watford For The Win.” What really did it was that one magic moment when you could say, finally, that Indiana was Indiana again.

“That Kentucky win,” Crean said Sunday night, referring to the Hoosiers’ 73-72 win over Kentucky on Dec. 10. “There’s no question that just the drama of that win … and then when you turn it on and it’s on ESPN on a promo for two months straight, you can’t beat that.

“Your overall record is a big deal, but it’s those moments that people remember. It’s helped everybody in the state of Indiana know that the reason they’re considering Indiana is for moments like that, for experiences like that. And it’s helped on the national level, especially with the young players to see that Indiana really is a national flavor again.”

And, oh, it is, all right, and with a suddenness that makes you reel a bit after 6-25 and 10-21 and 12-20. Now virtually everyone’s back from last year’s 27-9 club, and there’s a mended Maurice Creek and a handful of stud freshmen, and people are seriously thinking Indiana might be a preseason No.1.

“It’s fun,” Crean said of all that. “Our ticket sales are through the roof; they had to cap our season ticket sales at 12,400, and our first year we were just under 4,000. There’s a lot of attention, and the players earned the opportunity to get that attention.

“But the most important thing is they earned the opportunity to get in the conversation. And our job as coaches and our jobs as players is to never get ahead of where we’re at, and that is today. That most important day (is) today, and that’s exactly how we do it.”

He goes on for a while in that vein, and then he talks about how Indiana still has to get tougher and better on defense and get more shots. He talks about what a “hotbed” for talent Fort Wayne is, and about why he’s here, which is for the Neal/Delagrange Celebrity Golf Classic’s Celebrity Live Auction to benefit Special Olympics of Allen County and other youth organizations.

Crean’s presence lends a distinctly Indiana, and distinctly basketball, flavor to all of that. Craig Neal, after all, is an old Washington Hatchet and a 1983 Indiana All-Star. Ditto Steve Alford, a high school and IU hoops icon who’s never missed this event and who’s now the head coach at New Mexico, where Neal serves as his associate coach.

And now here’s Crean, tying all of it together in a neat thematic package.

“We have a long term plan, but you never get ahead of it,” he said before going off to pose for photos with the mascots. “It’s fun to hear all the different things out there, but it has nothing to do with how any of us work.”

Again we hang on every syllable.

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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