Indiana’s March of Madness
It’s been a long four years but Indiana is finally back in the tournament. Thank God. After a great season that saw Indiana finish 25-8 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten, they were granted a four seed in the NCAA tournament and they’ll play the 13th ranked New Mexico State Aggies. As I mentioned in my Big Ten preview, this represents a tremendous turnaround for a Hoosier team that finished 11th, 9th, and 11th respectively with a grand total of 8 conference wins in the last three years.
After an incredible last second win over #1 ranked Kentucky in the pre-season, I predicted a finish of 25-9 with an 11-8 record in the Big Ten. Crappy math aside, I actually came pretty close, even if I didn’t pick each individual game correctly. With my original prediction of a 5 seed, I was pretty close there as well. In order for them to get to the Sweet 16, and most likely a rematch with Kentucky, they’ll have to get by two very talented teams first.
In the first round (I don’t recognize those garbage play-in games as the first round), IU will have to get past the Aggies. They finished 26-9 overall and 10-4 in conference. Their star, Wendell McKines is a beast down low, evidenced by 20 double-doubles this year. They rebound very well so well they’re the number 6 rebound team in the nation. They average 15 offensive boards a game. With this many offensive rebounds you would be correct to assume that they have a very productive offense. They’re 11th in the nation in points per game and a big reason for this is the amount of times they get to the line. The Aggies average 30 free throws a game. A plus for IU is that they only make 66% of those shots.
Looking at the raw stats, the Big Ten team the Aggies remind me most of is Michigan State. Wendell McKines might not be as talented as Draymon Green but he’s still an incredibly good player. IU will have to be strong on the boards and they’ll need to stay out of foul trouble. Of course, IU’s offense is also very good and if they can hit their shots they have a chance to run away with this one. While IU’s overall depth was hurt after they lost Verdell Jones III to a career ending Achilles injury, they still go 9-10 deep on their bench while the Aggies only play 7-8 players. Cody Zeller has been great at staying out of four trouble this year and that will need to remain in this game.
Most games this season the performances of Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford have determined how Indiana does overall. I don’t see any reason to doubt that will be the case in this game. If Christian can stay within the offense, hit open threes, and play the role of defensive stopper that will be a huge boost. If this happens and Oladipo is able to drive the lane and get the free throw line the way he did in IU’s blowout win over Michigan State, IU should have little trouble in the game.
Of course, March is the time for upsets and one of the most popular upset picks has been New Mexico State. As of writing this post, IU is currently a 6.5 point favorite on Sportsbook, however, if you listen to the talking heads, you’d think the Aggies were favored. The argument tends to be that Indiana is young and inexperienced, they’ll miss Jones, and the Aggies are relentless on the glass. These are all very valid points, however, after Indiana beat Kentucky, Ohio State, and Michigan State, I’m convinced they can play with anyone in the country. As the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.
If Indiana can survive the Aggies, they’ll face the winner of 5th seeded Wichita State and 12th seeded VCU. Both of these teams have also been picked as upset picks to reach the Sweet 16. It seems not many people are picking the Hoosiers to get to Atlanta, however, if they do, they’ll have the rematch I’m positive the NCAA Tournament Committee was rooting for: the Kentucky. Personally I think IU can and will get to the Sweet 16, however, they’ll most likely fall to Kentucky. Of course, I’d love for IU to beat them twice in one year and ruin Kentucky’s dream season. All year this IU team has been compared to the 2002 team that made it to the championship game. That year IU was a 5 seed and had to get past Duke, the consensus favorite to win the entire tournament. That Duke team had just as many future NBA players as this Kentucky team does. Again, IU has proven it can play with anyone, and they’ve proven they can beat Kentucky so this wouldn’t be as big of an upset, but it’d be pretty close.
Of course, it’s always dangerous to look ahead in the tournament and I’m sure Tom Crean has the Hoosiers focused on the task at hand. While I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the games, I’ll be a nervous wreck until IU’s late tip Thursday night.