There was a great deal of speculation throughout the weeks and months leading up to Sunday that Indiana’s path to the Final Four would go through Indianapolis. The Hoosiers were ranked No. 1 for a good portion of the year, and they figured to be a safe bet for the Midwest region’s top seed.
But when the brackets were revealed Sunday evening, the Hoosiers were sent East. They won’t be playing in Lucas Oil Stadium this postseason.
Why? Well, most likely because of their loss to Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal in Chicago. The Hoosiers lost, and Louisville won the Big East tournament, giving them the top overall seed in the Big Dance.
“Probably,” guard Victor Oladipo said when asked if Saturday’s loss cost Indiana the Midwest region. “But I can’t go back and change time, I can’t go back and change the past. All I can do is look forward to the future.”
The Hoosiers’ path will first take them to Dayton and then to Washington D.C. if they advance to the second weekend.
“I expected our road to be kind of rough,” said senior forward Christian Watford. “That’s how it’s been since I’ve been here, so why would it change now?”
Ending up in the East could be a blessing in disguise for the Hoosiers. Most national analysts agree the Midwest region – which includes Louisville, Duke, Michigan State and St. Louis – is by far the toughest in the Tournament.
Plus, if the Hoosiers were in Indianapolis, they would be expected to win and advance to the Final Four. The pressure would be significant, and Indiana doesn’t always play well as a favorite.
“I feel like we play better on the road anyway, to be quite honest with you,” Watford said. “Our mentality is just a little different. We go in with our underdog mentality that we’ve had for so long.”
Christian Watford, Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo met with the media on Sunday evening at Assembly Hall to discuss the Hoosiers’ selection as the No. 1 seed in the East region for the NCAA Tournament.
Watch and listen to their comments in the embedded media players below:
The Big Ten Conference released the annual All-Big Ten teams this evening live on the Big Ten Network and several Indiana players were among the honorees.
Michigan’s Trey Burke was named the conference’s player of the year, edging Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. But Oladipo was named the defensive player of the year and was also on the all-Big Ten first team, along with Zeller, Burke, Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. and Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas. On the media’s first team, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft replaced Hardaway Jr.
Oladipo and Burke were unanimous picks for the all-conference first team. Oladipo and Craft were unanimous selections on the all-defensive team.
Indiana’s Will Sheehey was named the sixth man of the year, Christian Watford was on the all-Big Ten third team, and Yogi Ferrell was on the all-conference freshman team and also an all-Big Ten honorable selection by the media. Jordan Hulls was named all-Big Ten honorable mention by the coaches.
Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan was named the league’s coach of the year by both the coaches and media.
Derek Elston was IU’s Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honoree.
Everything was assembled for Indiana to have the party of the year on Tuesday night. The Hoosiers were playing for sole possession of a Big Ten title — one they hadn’t won since 1993 — and against the very team they manhandled just weeks ago at Ohio State. Plus, they were prepared to honor their three seniors, a class of guys responsible for bringing the Indiana program back.
Indiana still honored those seniors after Tuesday night’s game, and the Hoosiers can still win a conference title outright by beating Michigan on Sunday. But the celebration was mostly ruined by Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes on Tuesday night.
Ohio State 67, Indiana 58. And suddenly, the Hoosiers aren’t a lock for a No. 1 seed any longer.
“This is the epitome of bittersweet tonight,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean. “We’re trying to celebrate what these guys have earned, and at the same time, we didn’t earn it tonight.”
Added senior forward Derek Elston: “It felt like too many mental errors were stacking on top of each other. When you dwell on one of those, you’re just not playing your game anymore. I think that’s what happened tonight.”
The Buckeyes are a very good defensive team, but they sometimes struggle because their lack of consistent scorers behind Fort Wayne native Deshaun Thomas. When they get other guys to score, though, they are capable of being one of the nation’s top 10 teams.
On Tuesday night, it wasn’t just Thomas (who finished with 18 points on 17 shots). Craft, Ohio State’s pesky point guard, played well offensively and very much dominated whoever was matched up against him. Craft had 16 points on an efficient 7-of-10 shooting, four rebounds, four assists and four steals.
“We wanted to keep the lane covered on Craft, and he made some tough shots,” Crean said. “Those are the same shots he didn’t make against us [before]. He’s so good because he’s really looking for two things. He’s looking for an open lane, and then if you converge, he’s looking to hit somebody.”
Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson also made solid offensive contributions, combining for 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
“There were some stretches there where we would play really good ‘D’ for the whole shot clock, and they’d get a bucket right at the end,” said senior guard Jordan Hulls. “Whether Craft hit one off the backboard or a pull-up jumper or whatever the case was, offensive rebound, we just didn’t play with that edge that we need to have.”
Christian Watford’s path to Indiana wasn’t at all similar to that of the two guys who will be honored with him at Tuesday’s Senior Night at Assembly Hall. Unlike Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston, Watford didn’t grow up in the state. He joined the Hoosiers from Birmingham, Ala. and wasn’t a household name when he stepped on campus for the first time.
So when Indiana struggled through the first two years of Watford’s career, there wasn’t as much pressure for him to stay. It was unlike the situation of Hulls and Elston, who would be abandoning their state school if they bolted during the program’s turmoil.
Watford could have transferred. Other out-of-state recruits did. And he admits now that the thought crossed his mind at some point.
But Watford didn’t leave. Despite the external pressure to do so and the occasional questions from his family, Watford decided to stick it out. He and his family believed in the process.
“Well, it definitely comes to your mind, but you don’t wanna be one of those guys when the going gets tough, you just run,” Watford said. “I ain’t never been like that. I wasn’t fittin to leave because of no losing season or anything like that. If I woulda left, it woulda been because of something totally different.
“Of course, of course, of course [you get questions], that’s just part of it. But you gotta know you’re here for a reason. You gotta stick it out if that’s what you felt like from the beginning, and that’s how I felt. I had a good understanding of the coaching staff, so I felt like I was here for a reason.”
This game was supposed to be about Michigan State. At least that’s what we were led to believe. This was the Spartans chance to take control of the Big Ten race, to make a case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and to do so in front of their beloved hero, Magic Johnson.
Nobody, it seemed, wanted the Hoosiers to win this game. Few believed they could. Not the broadcasters, not the officials, and certainly not the raucous crowd inside the Breslin Center. It seemed unlikely the Hoosiers would win, given all the elements at play.
And yet, they did. When we get into March, when we get to Selection Sunday, this will be the game we look back at and say, ‘Wow, Indiana is an elite team.’ The Hoosiers have been impressive all season. They’ve won games against Michigan, Ohio State, and another one against Michigan State.
But in none of those games did the Hoosiers face the hurdles they did on Tuesday night in East Lansing. The odds were stacked against them all night. There were several questionable calls, at least one ridiculous no-call, and two late clock errors. Indiana trailed by four points with less than two minutes left. The game looked to be over, but it wasn’t.
No. 1 Indiana, 72, No. 4 Michigan State 68.
“For Indiana to come in on this night with the crowd as good as it was and the national audience,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, “I think that speaks volumes of them. They deserve the credit.”
The Hoosiers have trailed late in games before this season. Butler and Wisconsin are examples. But Indiana didn’t win those games. The Hoosiers made runs, they scored buckets, but they didn’t win a game in which they were truly up against the wall late.
On Tuesday night, they refused to accept that result. Christian Watford, who looked rattled by a flagrant foul he picked up in the second half, was able to shake it off and make one of the biggest plays for the Hoosiers since his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Kentucky last year. His 3-point play cut the Michigan State lead to one point and gave the Hoosiers new life.
“Christian was just a grown man the whole night,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean. “Air balling and having 15,000 people yell at him didn’t affect him one bit. We just kept coming. We had the foul situations and the flagrant, which I just trust, because those are high-level officials. He didn’t let any of that affect him. He just kept playing,”
And then there’s Victor Oladipo, who looks more and more like the National Player of the Year every time he steps on the floor. He wasn’t 100 percent, but it certainly looked like he was. No matter what happened in the game, Oladipo always looked like a guy who expected to win.