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COLUMN: IU prepares for a difficult yet fascinating East Regional



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Senior guard Yogi Ferrell and sophomore guard Robert Johnson walk of the court following the 72-69 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Haley Ward and Haley Ward Buy Photos

They say they aren’t looking ahead. They can’t be. They shouldn’t be.

But the rest of us are.

The IU players know they need to focus on their round of 64 matchup with No. 12 seed Chattanooga. Senior forward Max Bielfeldt mentioned how 12-seeds have historically pulled off upsets in the NCAA Tournament.

Yet we all can’t help thinking about that possible round of 32 matchup with No. 4 seed Kentucky. The rematch of the rivalry that was played every year for more than 40 seasons and ended right after the famous buzzer-beating jumper from Christian Watford.

It's a non-conference rivalry of bordering states and fans that seem to genuinely dislike each other. The one in which Kentucky Coach John Calipari threw shade about IU fans storming the court two years after beating the Wildcats in 2011.

“If we won a game against the No. 1 team in the country in Rupp Arena, would people charge the court?” Calipari asked on his weekly radio show. “No. You're supposed to (win). You're Kentucky. We don't do that here."

That’s the game most people can’t help but think about. IU has found itself in one of the more difficult and most interesting brackets for the 2016 NCAA Tournament. There are multiple potential collisions of blue-blood basketball programs.

First, if IU beats Chattanooga, it could play Kentucky. The winner of that might be playing No. 1 seed North Carolina. Then there’s Xavier, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Wisconsin hanging around the other side of the East Regional.

The potential Kentucky matchup means senior guard Yogi Ferrell and Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis could give fans a battle between two of the best point guards in the nation.

And this Tournament brings on some extra significance for Ferrell, a guard who holds all-time IU records and now has a Big Ten title. What he does not have is an NCAA Tournament run past the Sweet 16.

This March provides his last opportunity to achieve that final goal. In his three prior seasons, Ferrell has lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed his freshman year, missed the Tournament altogether his sophomore year and lost in the first round his junior year.

He admits this year there’s a fire lit.

“My feelings are especially high,” Ferrell said. “I’m gonna be playing as hard as I’ve ever played, probably, in these games right here. I know I play hard, but especially for this one, because I feel like our team definitely deserves it.”

Besides Bielfeldt and Ferrell, these Hoosiers don’t know what it’s like to win an NCAA Tournament game. Those two talked about how one turnover or one extra stop can be the difference in a Tournament game. This isn’t the NBA playoffs with a full series, Bielfeldt said.

This Tournament comes right after IU suffered a disappointing down-to-the-wire loss to Michigan in its first Big Ten Tournament game Friday. That game was decided by one or two moments.

IU Coach Tom Crean said IU made a defensive mistake it normally doesn’t make. Those kinds of things are the difference in March. IU has to focus on Chattanooga first and the players know that.

But Ferrell did let a little something slip Sunday.

“We’re going to prepare for Chattanooga just like Kentucky,” he said. “When we get to that game, we’ll prepare for Kentucky.”

Ferrell didn’t say if. He said when.

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