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Heart of Big Ten tournament could be Hoosiers

Updated: April 10, 2012 11:07AM

Indiana is up. Illinois is down.

In short, two venerable Big Ten schools that consider basketball success their birthright are trading momentum places again.

Indiana has turned a big corner. After winning 11 league games, three more than in their first three years combined under Tom Crean, the Hoosiers head into the Big Ten tournament on a roll.

They are the fifth seed but ought to be first in the hearts of an Indianapolis crowd hungry for postseason success. Indiana never has won the Big Ten tournament and only reached the final once in the 14 years it has been played.

The bandwagon ought to be crowded.

‘‘It’s a big deal,’’ Crean said. ‘‘A lot of people will look forward to seeing us. The crowds here [in nearby Bloomington] have been so fantastic, I have no doubt it’s going to carry over to there. Our guys thrive on it. People enjoy watching this team. I think the crowd support is going to be tremendous — as good as it’s been in my four years.’’

Considering that Indiana swept co-Big Ten champions Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in Bloomington, it would be a mistake to read too much into seeds in Indianapolis, which is as much the epicenter of Hoosier Mania as Bloomington.

If IU can deliver on its promise, it would be a good thing for the Big Ten tournament, which has sort of lost its luster.

The tournament always starts with a bang. But as teams fall by the wayside and fans head home, the Sunday final has tended to be more of an afterthought than a coronation.

That’s especially true because a multiple-overtime game would be in danger of overlapping with the Selection Sunday show. Even a quick game leaves the committee little time to adjust its bracket, calling into question the impact of winning the Big Ten tournament.

A smarter move would be to play the championship game Saturday. Think of the excitement the Big East generates then. Fans would love it. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce would love to have the tournament start a day earlier, too.

Even with a Sunday finish, an Indiana run would be a shot in the arm reminiscent of the time when Chicago favorite Illinois was a major player in tournaments held at the United Center.

Meanwhile, the Illini limp into this tournament as the No. 9 seed after losing 11 of their last 13.  Their last remaining question seems to be whether Bruce Weber will be shown the door after the Big Ten tournament or be allowed to coach in the National Invitation Tournament.

‘‘Our kids don’t quit; it’s just been trying on them,’’ said Weber, confessing to a lot of sleepless nights himself. ‘‘I’d like them to have success for their sake. But in life, no one gives you anything. You have to go earn it. That’s where they have to make the decision.’’

Crean is the third coach (not counting interim Dan Dakich) since IU legend Bob Knight was shown the door. Weber is the third coach in Champaign since Illini legend Lou Henson retired.

If Weber, who is 50-56 in league play the last six years, inherited a great situation, Crean stepped into a quagmire.

‘‘When you start over and the league is pretty good, everybody thinks you’re starting at zero,’’ Crean told me last fall. ‘‘You’re not. You’re starting at a negative number.’’

Weber’s successor won’t inherit all that bad of a hand next fall, even in the likely event that Meyers Leonard decides to leave for the NBA.

What he will assume is a serious burden of expectations. That’s the way it goes at Indiana and Illinois, which claim the second- and fourth-most Big Ten championships.

Both expect to add more.

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