Indiana men’s basketball barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament last season. It was one of the final four teams to make the 68-team pool, leaving it in a play-in game to make the main draw.
For Indiana’s leaders, who were making the tournament for the first time in their careers, it provided a preview of March basketball — and something to practice and play for all this year.
Now, 367 days later, Indiana is a No. 4 seed, preparing to play No. 13-seeded Kent State University in the first round Friday in Albany, New York.
“Being here over a year and a half now into this job, a few guys from last season made a major jump this year,” head coach Mike Woodson said in a press conference Sunday. “We had to play in a game to get into the tournament (last year). A fourth seed? I couldn't be more proud of a group of guys.”
A year after first getting their shot at the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers’ senior leaders are back and looking for a much more lucrative journey.
“Last year being a play-in game, we kind of got a taste of it,” senior forward Race Thompson said. “It’s the want to be able to play deeper into the tournament is something that's pushed us every single day.”
Indiana will certainly be led by the combined 15 years of experience from their three senior starters — Thompson, senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and senior forward Miller Kopp. They’ll also have the leadership of senior guard Xavier Johnson, who was shut down for the season with an injured foot he suffered against the University of Kansas on Dec. 17, but has been acting as, essentially, another assistant for Indiana.
But the Hoosiers’ younger players are no longer lacking experience, either. The freshmen all have a year under their belt, especially guard Jalen Hood-Schifino and forward Malik Reneau, who have been staples in Indiana’s rotation all year.
“Everyone needs to hold each other accountable, and everyone needs to be on the same page if we are going to make a run,” Jackson-Davis said. “You can't have two guys doing it. It's got to be a whole team thing. We win and lose as a team, and we are going to be at the head of the snake, but at the same time, it's going to take everyone.”
Indiana’s tournament last season proved to be a hectic experience. After its First Four victory over the University of Wyoming in Dayton, Ohio, the Hoosiers had to hop on a plane to Portland, Oregon, for their first-round matchup against Saint Mary’s College less than 40 hours later.
On top of the quick travel turnaround, Indiana’s plane was delayed, meaning it didn’t leave Dayton until roughly 4 a.m. The memory of the late flight is now driving Indiana and how it prepares this year.
“The turnaround is the biggest thing,” Jackson-Davis said. “We have to be ready and locked in for the game, and then afterwards, we have to be extremely prepared for the next team. That's huge for us, the preparation aspect.”
As Indiana prepares for Kent State, it will at least need to keep in mind the turnaround for the second round, which, if Indiana won its first game, would pit it against the winner of the University of Miami and Drake University. But the Hoosiers can’t get ahead of themselves, either.
“Each and every game you go out, it's a game of inches in tournament play,” Woodson said. “I can relate back to when I was in college. We lost to Villanova at the buzzer after being up the whole game. I mean, nobody wants to go home in March Madness, and I get it. That's why you've got to be ready to play every minute, every second of every game.”
The Hoosiers say they will be ready. With every game a potential last for Jackson-Davis, Thompson and Kopp, there’s no other choice.
“For me and Trayce going out like this, one-and-done, there's no doubt in my mind that every single game I'm leaving it out on the court,” Thompson said.