It took barely a minute from the time CBS started delving into the NCAA Tournament bracket before Indiana saw its name on a line and knew its opponent and destination. But of course, after four years that took the program to hell and back and until this season never took them anywhere near any postseason tournament, the Hoosiers didn’t need any more time or drama to build up an emotional response.
Immediately upon seeing that they would be a No. 4 seed in the South bracket and play No. 13 seed New Mexico State on Thursday in Portland, Ore., every single player got up out of his chair at the Heinke Hall of Champions in Memorial Stadium where the Hoosiers were watching the selection show. In a move that appeared totally spontaneous and organic, they created something similar to a post-game handshake line and every player embraced every single one of his teammates, sharing in the joy of being a part of the sport’s biggest spectacle and in the appreciation of what it took to finally get back there.
The Hoosiers’ first game will be at approximately 9:45 p.m. on Thursday night.
“When it’s set in stone, its a pretty special feeling,” junior point guard Jordan Hulls said. “Getting the 4 seed is pretty cool. It’s a dream come true, man. It really is. You always want to play in the NCAA Tournament. Dream about big shots, all that kind of stuff. Iâ€™m definitely excited to be able to celebrate with my teammates and the people around us. … A lot of people doubted us all the way through, it’s a great feeling to finally get here and accomplish it.”
The Hoosiers last trip came in 2008 when the program was in the midst of a complete implosion. Coach Kelvin Sampson had resigned in mid-February due to NCAA recruiting violations. Interim coach Dan Dakich was at the helm, but the roster was falling apart around him. The Hoosiers got a No. 8 seed that year and lost 86-72 to Arkansas. Tom Crean was hired to replace Sampson in April, but due to player dismissals and defections Indiana brought just two returning players back to the roster for the 2008-09 season. Both of them, Kyle Tabor and Brett Finklemeier, had come to Indiana as walk-ons, and the rag-tag group Crean put together to get a team on the floor finished 6-25.
But after a 10-21 season in 2009-10 and a 12-20 campaign in 2010-11, the 2011-12 team came together quicker than expected and accomplished feats that no other team in the history of Indiana’s celebrated program had. They became the first Indiana team to beat three teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll in the regular season, beating then No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State. With a 25-8 record, the Hoosiers came into Selection Sunday certain that they would be dancing by the day’s end.
But it was still special for them to actually see it happen.
“It’s an amazing experience,” senior guard Kory Barnett said. “Especially to think about from August, 2008 to where we’ve come now, it’s unbelievable to think about the things we’ve gone through. Especially these seniors. I’m excited for this day. We’ve been looking forward to this since last April. As soon as we were done, we marked this date on our calendars. It’s finally here.”
The first round pits the Hoosiers against New Mexico State team that went 26-9 in the regular season and won the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) championship. The Aggies have won nine of their last 10 games and boast a victory over New Mexico, which drew a No. 5 seed in the tournament. Senior forward Wendell McKines, a 6-foot-6, 230-pounder, leads the squad with 18.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
“Wendell McKines is one of the better players, not only on the west coast but certainly in the country,” Crean said. “… I’ve seen them over a period of time and they are a relentless team. An absolutely relentless team.”
If the Hoosiers survive that first game, they will meet the winner of a matchup of dangerous mid-majors. No. 5 seed Wichita State (27-5), which won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title, plays No. 12 seed Virginia Commonwealth (28-6) which won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Should they reach the South Regional semifinal, which will be held in Atlanta, there’s a good chance they’d meet an old foe. The Kentucky team the Hoosiers defeated on Christian Watford’s buzzer beater on Dec. 10 — which may still be the signature moment of this college basketball season thanks to the court rush that followed —is the No. 1 seed in the South and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
“He kept saying that, in all honesty,” Crean said, referring to friend and Kentucky coach John Calipari. “That was one of his guesses more than anything else. That’s him. He’s got some conspiracy theories. But no, that’s one thing he said, ‘You know, we’re gonna end up in the same region. But I wasn’t shocked at all.”
Of course, the Hoosiers found out immediately after they were selected that not everyone thinks they’re going to get that far. Immediately after Indiana’s bracket path was announced, CBS sports commentator and Sports Illustrated reporter Seth Davis said he expected the Hoosiers to be upset by Wichita State in round of 32.
“I loved it,” Crean said. “That’s Seth. That’s Seth Davis. Seth has been giving us ammunition all year. Seth is the gift that keeps on giving right now with his predictions. We look forward to that. I never have a problem when anyone picks against us.”