PORTLAND — No. 4 Indiana cruised past 13th-seeded New Mexico State 79-66 Thursday night, capping off a decent day at the Rose Garden. It had one upset — if you want to believe VCU beating Wichita State was an upset — and two other good-not-great games in Louisville beating Davidson and New Mexico knocking off Long Beach State.
The win was huge. It'd been five long years since Hoosiers fans got to celebrate an NCAA tournament victory. That sort of hiatus feels like half a lifetime for a fan base as fervid as this one. IU is now 61-30 all-time in the NCAAs.
In terms of this season, the Hoosiers are 25-1 when holding a halftime lead and 17-1 when holding an opponent under 70 points.
After the win, I was waiting outside the IU locker room to speak to Crean. Before I saw him, who other than legendary baseball manager Tony La Russa comes strutting out of the place like a boss. I tweeted out that I saw the former White Sox, A's and Cardinals manager. Some questioned me.
Turns out La Russa was in Louisville earlier Thursday to check out Marquette's game against BYU— thus the disbelief. So, yeah, while you were watching the NCAA tournament from your office, then a bar, then your living room, Tony La Russa was taking in the tournament in two places and flying charter in between to make it possible.
He and Crean have been friends for almost a decade now.
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“Tom and I developed a friendship about as fast as you can develop one,” La Russa said. “It was like that.”
One of Crean's old assistants at Marquette was the brother to a St. Louis Cardinals staff member. La Russa and Crean met after a Cardinals-Brewers game in 2002.
“I love his enthusiasm, and he has this real thirst for learning,” La Russa said. “He's like a sponge the way he takes it all in.”Crean and La Russa have swapped books for years now, mostly leadership/coaching books from guys like the late Bill Walsh and Bob Knight, who La Russa is still very, very close with. La Russa traveled to the game via charter thanks to a man by the name of Dick Strong, who described himself simply as “Marquette fan.” Yes, a Golden Eagles fan who happens to have easy access to a private jet. Turns out he works in investments.
“Means a lot,” Crean said. “That's a big deal. Those are great friends. We met in the '02, they went to the playoffs that year, and we've had a great friendship ever since.”
La Russa and Strong stayed for the first half of the BYU-Marquette game, left, watched the end at the Louisville airport and then got air-bound to Portland in a hurry.
“Dick splurged,” La Russa said.
How cool is that? The two won't be around for Saturday night's Indiana game against VCU, though; Strong will be back in Louisville to watch the entirety of the Marquette game, and La Russa is speaking at Truman State University in Missouri Friday night before returning to spring training activity within Major League Baseball.