DES MOINES, Iowa — Thomas Bryant said it was a wake up call. A slap in the face.
Riding high off a Big Ten title run, IU was knocked out in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament last week against Michigan. The Hoosiers were quickly educated on how fragile things can be in the month of March.
The freshman center experienced for the first time what it feels like to be knocked out in college basketball. Now, he and IU have to learn from that in the NCAA Tournament.
“Right now, if we lose, we go home,” Bryant said. “We see that desperation. We play with that desperation.”
The Hoosiers are a group with plenty of talent but little experience making a run through the tournament. Only senior guard Yogi Ferrell has ever won an NCAA Tournament game with IU. His No. 1 seed team lost in the Sweet 16.
Senior forward Max Bielfeldt won some Tournament games with Michigan, but was a redshirt during the team’s Final Four run.
So Thursday, when No. 5 seed IU plays No. 12 Chattanooga, will be the first chance for a team without much March experience to stake their claim in pursuit of a national title.
Last year, IU was a bubble team just hoping to earn a spot in the big dance. It earned a No. 10 seed on Selection Sunday and lost to No. 7 Wichita State in Round of 64.
“It was more of we were just happy we made it,” junior forward Troy Williams said, “and then we tried to make a statement and then going home so early, it was like a shot to the heart.”
He said the team decided after the loss to simply come back next year and go further.
“The hunger is real,” Williams said.
This time around, IU expects to be here and has bigger goals in mind than a win or two on opening weekend. It’s a top-15 team in the country and has the talent to make a run.
Bryant doesn’t view entering the Tournament with higher expectations as a daunting challenge, though.
“Pressure is when you’re not prepared,” he said.
Bryant said he thinks everyone on this team is prepared for the matchup with Chattanooga and will be for any game that may come after it.
It’s interesting that a team with veterans without much NCAA Tournament experience is also putting so much faith in the freshmen that have emerged as major players this season.
Bryant was expected to be a star, but forwards OG Anunoby, Juwan Morgan and guard Harrison Niego were not assumed to be playing as much and as well as they are.
Bielfeldt said the freshmen are showing what they can do on the court while still acting like upperclassmen.
“I think we have a pretty mature group of freshman for 18-year olds,” he said.
That is good for IU, as the freshmen have just as few tournament wins as the sophomores and juniors. Bielfeldt credited IU Coach Tom Crean for how, before the season, he did a good job of preparing the freshmen for this time of the season without them even realizing it.
On Thursday, it begins — Ferrell’s last chance for a title as a Hoosier and Crean’s opportunity to prove he can take IU far in March. For all the stories about how different this season is and all of the maturity that has developed, it’s all just talk.
The real answers will come Thursday and maybe Saturday. That’s when we can judge a season.
One of the few players with a tournament run or two under his belt, Bielfeldt, had some advice for his teammates.
“Just go out there and enjoy it with the guys you’re playing with and play the way you want to play.”