Six years of frustration, disappointment and watching from the sidelines in March came to an end Sunday night when Indiana men’s basketball was officially selected as part of the field of 68 teams for this season’s NCAA Tournament.
For the first time since the 2015-16 season, the Hoosiers have earned the chance to compete for a sixth national championship and play a role in the madness. Their road to glory starts in the First Four play-in segment of the tournament against the University of Wyoming at 9:10 p.m. Tuesday. Whichever team wins will be considered the No. 12 seed in the East region.
“A lot of these guys have been sitting on the sideline for some years watching NCAA basketball being played in March and never really knowing what it's about,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said. “It's a beautiful thing. I'm so thrilled because these guys have worked their butts off to get to this point, and I want to see them move on.”
During his first year in charge at Indiana, Woodson has achieved his goal of taking the program back to the big dance, and with it, the national spotlight. The path toward this achievement wasn’t simple, though.
Starting in February, Indiana lost seven of its final nine regular season games. The Big Ten Tournament was the Hoosiers’ final hope to avoid another early end to their season, and they fed off the added pressure to play some of their most cohesive and inspirational basketball.
Indiana’s weekend included wins against No. 8 seed Michigan and No. 1 seed Illinois, paired with a loss in the semifinals to Iowa, the eventual Big Ten Tournament champion, that came down to the final possession. Ahead of Selection Sunday, Hoosier fans’ uncertainty turned into belief surrounding the team’s chances of grabbing one of final spots.
It came as a shock to many when the selection committee left the Hoosiers out of one of the first round matchups despite their recent results.
For comparison, Michigan was given the No. 11 seed in the South region despite having the worst overall record, 17-14, of all nine Big Ten teams that made the tournament. This decision was likely based on the ideology that regular season results hold more weight than a few good games in the conference tournament, but the Wolverines won only two more regular-season conference games than the Hoosiers.
While a national title was never an expectation coming into this season, the Hoosiers are using their momentum from last weekend’s run in Indianapolis to dream big. Just last season, the University of California, Los Angeles made its way out of the First Four and made an unexpected run all the way to the Final Four — proving the possibilities in March Madness are endless.
“That was something that was actually spoken even before the Big Ten Tournament,” senior guard Rob Phinisee said. “Our season is not over yet, and no matter what happens you can always make a run at the end of the season.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, there are a few Hoosier players dealing with injuries.
Woodson said he is uncertain of the status of sophomore forward Jordan Geronimo, who suffered a knee injury in Friday’s win over Illinois and didn’t play against Iowa the following day. Sophomore guard Trey Galloway returned to play for the Big Ten Tournament after dealing with a high groin sprain and is expected to play Tuesday.
The NCAA Tournament presents a challenging grind only few teams can manage effectively. Indiana’s road to the Final Four in the East region of the bracket will require complete focus against some of the best competition in the country.
“It's not going to be hard for me to get these guys to understand what's at stake here,” Woodson said. “You don't come to school just to come to school and play basketball, you come to try to win a national title (and) a Big Ten title.”
If Indiana wins its First Four matchup, the team will have a short turnaround before traveling through three time zones to face No. 5 seed St. Mary’s College in the first round at 7:20 p.m. Thursday in Portland, Oregon.
From there — barring any upsets — the Hoosiers would potentially face No. 4 seed UCLA in the second round and No. 1 seed Baylor University, last year’s national champion, in the Sweet Sixteen. Other high-seeded teams in the other half of the East region include No. 2 University of Kentucky, No. 3 Purdue and No. 6 University of Texas at Austin.
“The stakes are even higher because nobody wants to go home,” Woodson said. “Once you put that uniform on and go out there on that floor and start competing for a national title, the games become even tougher.”