They expected Sunday to be a little less stressful and a little more celebratory. They didn’t expect to see 56 names called out on the NCAA tournament board before theirs was, and they certainly didn’t expect to have to share a seed line with another team.
After knocking off Big Ten regular-season champion Illinois on Friday and nearly knocking off eventual Big Ten tournament champion Iowa before losing on a bank-shot 3-pointer, the Indiana Hoosiers expected to feel safe on Sunday, not nervous and not slightly jilted. But that’s the feeling the expressed on social media after it was announced that they would be playing Wyoming in Dayton in one of the First Four games on Tuesday for the right to carry the No. 12 seed in the East Region into the first full round of NCAA tournament play on Thursday in Portland, Ore. where No. 5 seed St. Mary’s would be waiting.
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On his Twitter account, senior Pitt transfer point guard Xavier Johnson posted “They’ll pay for it,” followed by an emoji of a ninja.
The Hoosiers wouldn’t be in the position to be slightly bothered by their NCAA draw if not for Johnson. The Hoosiers most critical variable has averaged 18.1 points and 6.8 assists in his past eight games, helping Indiana win four of those including the thrilling Big Ten tournament wins over Michigan and Illinois.
But Johnson is in his first year with the Hoosiers, and even though he missed the Big Dance in all three seasons at Pittsburgh, there’s some perspective he’s missing for what it means for the Hoosiers to be back. All-Big Ten center Trayce Jackson-Davis has been with the Hoosiers for three years, seeing their push for an at-large berth erased in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the tournament. Last season, the Center Grove High School graduate saw the entire tournament played in Indianapolis in a COVID bubble without the Hoosiers involved after a late season collapse not only kept Indiana out but led to the firing of coach Archie Miller.
He didn’t want to be stuck in the play-in game either, but he also quickly recognized getting in at all is preferable to anything he or anyone else on this IU roster has ever experienced.
“Some disrespect,” Jackson-Davis said on a live video on his Instagram page, nodding his head with his bottom lip pushed out. “But we in. That’s all that matters.”
At long last, the Hoosiers are, finally in, even if it means they need a win before they’re part of the main event. The last time they got to experience the NCAA tournament was 2016 when they won the Big Ten title and beat Kentucky in the second round before losing to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. In the time between, Indiana has fired two coaches in Tom Crean and Miller and in their place hired Mike Woodson, a decorated alum who had won an NBA title as an assistant coach and taken five teams to the NBA playoffs but hadn’t had to care about the NCAA tournament selection process in 42 years since his senior year at IU.
Even after the Hoosiers beat Illinois on Friday, Woodson cautioned reporters who asked him about the tournament that he didn’t know how it worked and he wouldn’t be sure if the Hoosiers were in until they heard their name called. When they finally were, he didn’t allow himself to complain about their path.
His first year as a college coach was not a totally smooth one. Though the Hoosiers could claim disrespect at the fact the Michigan team they had just beaten was seeded higher than them or the fact wins over No. 3 seed Purdue, No. 4 seed Illinois and No. 7 seed Ohio State weren’t worth more in the selection committee’s eyes, they had to admit they’d made their own bed and missed out on opportunities to improve their standing.
The Hoosiers were 9-11 in Big Ten play and 3-8 in true road games, including losses at Penn State and the damaging defeat at Northwestern when Woodson suspended five players for a violation of team rules, suggesting it was a curfew violation from the night before the game. Of their final five losses of the season, four came by five points or fewer and the fifth was an overtime loss at Ohio State in a game they had led by four in the game’s final minutes, evidence of the Hoosiers’ struggle to finish games.
And, of course, the Hoosiers were burned in the end by their nonconference strength of schedule. Woodson told reporters not long after he was hired he believed in a challenging schedule in the long term, but he didn’t want to push the first team he had before getting a sense of what they were capable of. Their nonconference strength of schedule ranked 308th nationally according to the NET, and the tournament selection committee has shown a tendency to punish teams that don’t make a point to challenge themselves outside of their league schedules.
So Woodson saw no point in complaining about what Indiana could no longer control.
“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,” Woodson said on a Zoom call immediately after the selection show. “Now they get an opportunity come Tuesday to play in the tournament and win and perhaps move on to Portland, Oregon, to face Saint Mary’s. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”
Senior guard Rob Phinisee expressed the same sentiment. Along with the two disappointments Jackson-Davis was a part of, he was a freshman on the 2018-19 team that started the season 12-2, proceeded to lose 11 of its next 12 games, won four straight games to somehow get itself back in the NCAA discussion, then lost a must-win game against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament to find itself in the NIT.
“We haven’t been to the tournament since 2016 so it’s huge for our state,” Phinisee said. “Huge for our fanbase, and everyone is just looking forward to it.”
The path forward is not at all easy. They start with a 25-8 Wyoming team that finished fourth in an extremely competitive Mountain West Conference, claimed wins over tournament-bound league foes Boise State and Colorado State and went 9-5 in road games. If the Hoosiers win that one, they have to fly nearly cross-country overnight Tuesday into Wednesday, then play Thursday in Portland against a No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s team that boasts one of the nation’s best defenses and a win over No. 1- overall seed Gonzaga. Survive that, and the Hoosiers would play the winner of No. 13 seed Akron or No. 4 UCLA, the team that last season took a spot in the play-in game and turned it into a berth in the Final Four. (Though it should be noted, all the Bruins had to do between games was go from West Lafayette to Indianapolis.)
But as Woodson and Jackson-Davis suggested, there’s no use in complaining now. They’re in, and that’s all that matters.
“It’s a quick turnaround,” Woodson said. “We’ve got to get ready to play Wyoming. It’s just that simple.”
Follow Indiana insider Dustin Dopirak on Twitter @DustinDopirak or e-mail him at email@example.com.