If Indiana basketball fans thought winning the outright Big Ten title was enjoyable, reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight might feel like winning a national championship.
After going 15-3 in league play and registering 10 wins against RPI top-100 teams, the Hoosiers, who lost their first game of the Big Ten tournament Friday afternoon, were surprisingly handed a No. 5 seed in the East Regional on Sunday during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. They are scheduled to play No. 12 seed Chattanooga at 7:10 p.m. Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, in the opening round.
But that’s not the problem. It’s what comes next that has Hoosiers fans going mad in March.
With a win against the Mocs, Indiana (25-7) could face rival Kentucky (No. 4 seed) in the second round of the tournament. And if that wasn’t scary enough, a win against the Wildcats could lock a date with the East Regional’s No. 1 seed — North Carolina — in the Sweet 16.
It’s not that Indiana fans, or players for that matter, wouldn’t love to beat up on two of the top programs in the country year in and year out. It’s just the timing is downright awful.
The last time a Big Ten regular season champion was awarded a seed that low was in 2010, when Michigan State was given a No. 5 seed after sharing the league’s top honor with Purdue and Ohio State. When Indiana won the league in 2013, it was given a No. 1 seed in the East Regional.
Honestly, though, as the show unfolded, it was not surprising to see where the Hoosiers landed. The tournament committee has a clear fascination with particular conferences. In fact, it’s almost like some of this happened on purpose (see other rival matchups in the first round).
But what does it all mean? I’ve come to one conclusion, as many of you probably have, too. This is the deepest field of 68 in recent memory and maybe of all time.
But Indiana, which is 2-0 all-time against Chattanooga, should have no problems, barring a letdown.
Then the fun begins.
The Hoosiers haven’t played Kentucky (26-8) or North Carolina (28-6) in more than two years, as both have national titles within the past seven seasons and are, in no way, teams Indiana should ease past.
With the Wildcats, a matchup between Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis at the point guard position would be nothing short of fantastic.
North Carolina, per usual, is as deep and talented as they come and is probably the favorite — if there absolutely had to be one — to win it all.
But what has Indiana in this mess in the first place?
A 72-69 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament opener sure didn’t help Indiana’s case, but was a last-second shot worthy of knocking the Hoosiers back multiple seeds? I’m not so sure it did.I think what the committee was saying is that winning on the road or on a neutral court is something it considers when making selections. Indiana, known for its road struggles under head coach Tom Crean, finished 17-0 at Assembly Hall this season but just 8-7 away from it.The most interesting part about the Michigan loss? Sophomore Kameron Chatman, who hit the game-winning shot from the right corner, wasn’t even supposed to be in the game.
Instead, Michigan coach John Beilein, with the score tied at 69-all and battling foul trouble, decided to leave Chatman, who had hit just 13 3-pointers all season, in the game. He played just eight minutes but needed little time to bury the Hoosiers.
“We decided just to leave him in there, move Zak (Irvin) to a two guard, and let him play,” Beilein said after the win. “And that’s the last guy we would have — you know, if we would have called a timeout, I probably would have done something and said, ‘Kam, you go to the other corner if we’re going to run that play.’”
In the locker room after the game, although still in shock, a mostly upbeat Hoosier team remained positive despite the stinging end to their season. Because in reality, they knew it was only getting started.
NOTES: Indiana is making its 39th NCAA Tournament appearance and its second in a row. The Hoosiers are 64-33 in tourney games with eight trips to the Final Four and five national championships. Indiana beat Chattanooga in 2007 and 2011, both at Assembly Hall. The most recent time the Hoosiers beat Kentucky was when Christian Watford’s shot at the buzzer lifted Indiana against then No. 1 Kentucky at home in 2011. Indiana beat North Carolina during the 2012-13 season.
NCAA Tournament picks
My pick: Michigan StateFinal Four: Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, OklahomaBiggest upset (first round): No. 14 Fresno St. over No. 3 Utah
First round 5/12 lock: Purdue vs. Arkansas-Little Rock
Sleeper team: No. 10 seed Pittsburgh