Indiana begins its path down the NCAA Tournament road today, and I’m sure fans of the team are scanning the Hoosiers’ bracket looking for huge potholes that could swallow the team.
You get the feeling that the Hoosiers can’t afford to blow this opportunity. With Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford figuring to be gone next season, it might be a while until the stars align just right again.
James Madison, the team the Hoosiers will face today, is no threat. The Dukes won their first NCAA Tournament game in 30 years on Wednesday, they have a very shaky inside presence, and they rely on a lot of scoring from their guards. Oladipo and point guard Yogi Ferrell will take that away, and the second half should be a snoozer.
That means that Indiana has to put together another three victories, aside from James Madison, to reach the Final Four.
Looking at the rest of their East bracket, I was trying to find a Wisconsin-type of defense that would throw Indiana out of sorts offensively. Bucknell had the best defense, in terms of statistics, in the bracket, allowing 57.5 points a game and 37.8 field-goal percentage shooting. Butler, however, took care of that threat with a 68-56 victory Thursday.
Syracuse looms to be Indiana’s biggest defensive challenge. The Orange allowed 60.1 points a game and played a tough Big East schedule. The upset alert will be flashing in Round 4 if both teams advance that far. Indiana fans should be rooting for Montana, Cal or UNLV to upset Syracuse. Cal and UNLV faced each other on Thursday night, and Syracuse had the late game against Montana.
UNLV (38.6 percent) and Cal (39.6 percent) both give opponents fits when it comes to shooting field goals, but neither fits that trip-to-the-dentist defense that Wisconsin manages.
Davidson was the next best defensive team in the bracket, and it got bounced out by Marquette on a last-second basket on Thursday.
It should be noted that Miami ranks No. 41 among NCAA Division I teams, allowing 60.7 points a game. It figures that the Hoosiers will have a titanic match-up against the Hurricanes in the Elite Eight.
After defense, I always check out coaching match-ups or mismatches. Indiana’s Tom Crean is a proven commodity, so I would give him the edge against most coaches in the field. The possible entertaining coaching match-ups would come against Cal’s Mike Montgomery, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Butler’s Brad Stevens and Miami’s Jim Larranaga.
Since Montgomery’s first season as a head coach in 1978, he has had one losing season at Montana, Stanford and Cal. Boeheim has the second-most wins among Division I coaches in history, Stevens has turned a mid-major program into a major program, and Larranaga, who took George Mason to the Final Four, threatens to do the same this season at Miami. Larranaga already has won the Henry Iba national coach of the year award for this season.
Butler and Miami appear to be headed for a clash in the Sweet 16, and either of those two would give Indiana all it could handle in the Elite Eight. Miami won the ACC and the ACC tournament, and Butler beat Indiana on a neutral court in the regular season.
The other great equalizer in the NCAA Tournament is the 3-pointer. Illinois, which went bonkers with some 3-pointers to beat Indiana during the regular season, is in the bracket and averages 7.8 a game. I doubt if the Illini will survive to face Indiana; but if they do, Hoosier fans will have to hold their breath when Illinois starts tossing up treys from all over the floor.
My own bracket has Indiana thumping James Madison, then getting a win over Temple, which faces North Carolina State today. The Owls and the Tar Heels both are poor defensive teams, so either should get steamrolled by the Hoosiers’ transition game. I have Cal upsetting UNLV and Syracuse to get to Indiana, which would be great news for Hoosiers fans if that happens. Cal’s offense is driven by guards Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe, and teams lacking offensive balance have little chance against Indiana. Certainly, Syracuse is the favorite to work its way into a game against Indiana, but the Orange are 6-6 in their last 12 games and simply not playing their best basketball.
Overall, I would rate Indiana’s East bracket as second-weakest among the four, and just ahead of the West. If Indiana plays to its capabilities, you can make your reservations for Atlanta, or at least for an NCAA Final Four party.
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 379-5632.