PORTLAND, Ore. — Midway through the first half against New Mexico State on Thursday night, Derek Elston found a wide open Cody Zeller under the basket.
Before Zeller had even dunked the ball, Elston turned around and trotted the other way, spinning his arm in the air as he yelled “Let’s go baby!”
There was no fear, no nerves. It was business as usual.
But in the days leading up to the Hoosiers’ first NCAA Tournament game in four years, some wondered if the stage would be too big for Indiana. There was talk that the Hoosiers were just happy to be here, that they were satisfied with their 25-8 regular season, that they would quietly go down in the first game.
I began to wonder how they would react under pressure. Nobody in the locker room had ever played on such a stage, and the players had all day Thursday to think about it.
When they took the court, though, the Hoosiers looked anything but nervous. They played like a focused team from the start, and they acted like they’d been here before.
“We didn’t just come here to take a couple pictures and leave,” Elston said.
It was the Indiana players that had been waiting for this opportunity the longest — guys like Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford — that made the most of it when it finally came. Watford was hot early, and Hulls was even hotter late. In between 3-point binges was an Indiana layup drill against a poor New Mexico State defense. The Hoosiers had 11 bunnies in the second half alone.
After a while, it became clear: These guys were happy to be here, but they weren’t just happy to be here.
“Our approach was outstanding,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean. “They came out in attack mode. They followed the game plan. … It’s like so many other things, when you haven’t done it, the experience of going through it and getting involved and seeing that you can compete in this environment at this level — the guys noticed that, they felt that right away.”
The Hoosiers played loose, in large part, because they were treated like an underdog. Everybody seemed to be picking against them, nobody thought they could win away from Assembly Hall.
Plus, they wanted to shut up the Aggies’ talkative star, Wendell McKines.
“He said some things in the press conference earlier that were a little questionable,” said Indiana forward Will Sheehey. “So we took it upon ourselves that he didn’t get those touches. He said something about no mammal can guard him or something like that. So I guess Victor is not human.”
Talk, and the Hoosiers listen. They hear everything that’s being said, and they know that nobody believes in them.
The thing is, the doubt seems to bring this team closer together. The first one is out of the way, but the Hoosiers aren’t ready to be done. They’ve waited a long time to get here, and they want more.
“They’ve got some guys that are playing hungry right now,” said New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies. “They’re like a wounded animal losing Verdell. And they bonded together. It made them stronger.”
Filed to: 2012 NCAA Tournament