Saturday, March 16, 2013

Does IU Deserve a No. 1 Ahead of Louisville?



If Jordan Hulls were the Czar of NCAA basketball, he knows exactly who he’d put as the No. 1 seed of all the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, that would be the Indiana Hoosiers.

Or course, that would immediately cause an outcry and calls for a federal investigation given Hulls is a senior guard for IU. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an opinion that starts with IU being a No. 1 seed.

“I think we are, but it doesn’t matter what I think,” he said.

Those who matter are part of the NCAA selection committee. Their job is to fill the 68-team tournament that is set to dominate the sporting world for the next three weeks.

IU is in position to be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, which almost certainly would mean opening round games in Dayton and then, if it wins those, a trip to Indianapolis for the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight.
In other words, given how well Cream ‘n Crimson fans will travel to those locations, the Hoosiers would have, in essence, four home games to earn a trip to their first Final Four in 11 years.

“That would be a good experience to stay close,” Hulls said. “Hopefully it does happen, but we’ve just got to get better.”

That’s an understatement after IU suffered a season-worst 68-56 loss to Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten tourney semifinals. It is just 3-3 in its last six games. While the selection committee is supposed to look at the overall body of work, it won’t miss that closing streak in its deliberations.

REALITY CHECK: Those six games were against Big Ten teams, which are part of the best conference in the nation. In other words, that’s not nearly as bad as if it came against, say, Atlantic Sun competition.

Anyway, the Hoosiers have shown some vulnerability. That puts it on equal footing with the rest of America. Parity is everywhere you look and a dominate team doesn’t exist. The blather that Duke was unbeatable now that Ryan Kelly had returned took a big hit when Maryland upset Duke with Kelly in the ACC tourney.

So who is the best of the best? You could do a lot worse than the outright winner of the Big Ten, which IU is. Still, with Louisville winning the Big East tourney with an amazing comeback against Syracuse, the Cardinals could supplant the Hoosiers in the No. 1 pecking order.

What would that mean? You could have Louisville No. 1 in the Midwest, which would put it in Indianapolis for the Sweet 16. You could have IU No. 1 in the East, which would put it in Washington D.C. for the Sweet 16.

All that assumes, of course, that there are no major upsets.

So is Louisville better than IU? Specifically, is its body of work better than that of the Hoosiers?

Louisville has a strength of schedule of No. 8. Its RPI is three. It has a 9-4 record against RPI top-50 teams. It is 14-5 against the top 100 in RPI and its worst loss was to Notre Dame, which is No. 36 in RPI. It has beaten four top 25 in RPI teams, including two on the road.

Indiana has a No. 5 RPI, with a strength of schedule at No 11. It has a 9-5 record against top-50 teams, 13-5 against those in the top 100. Its worst loss was to Illinois (a No. 37 RPI).The Hoosiers also seven victories against RPI top 25 teams, including three on the road.

If you believe ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi, Louisville will be No. 1 in the Midwest with IU No. 1 in the East.

The Hoosiers can’t do anything about that, but they can improve the flaws that erupted against Wisconsin. They can defend better, rebound better and just play tougher.

"We'll learn from it," said forward Cody Zeller. "We'll figure out what we did wrong. We'll make the corrections and get ready for next week because that's what's most important."

Zeller couldn’t be more right.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Indiana Necessity -- Beat Michigan, Save No. 1 Seed




The call came just before midnight. Hoosier Deep Throat, after a long break, needed to talk.

We met in a long forgotten basement hidden underneath what used to be called the HPER Building, and what is now called, well, whatever.

An obscure metal door (decorated by a faded black-and-white photo of a young Branch McCracken) led to a stairway that must have been old when Bob Knight was terrorizing elementary school classmates.

The basement was littered with a shattered TV, a busted radio and torn up Sports Illustrated covers of Kate Upton in Antarctica. Cigarette smell hung heavy in the air. A single light bulb swayed from either an earthquake or stomping feet.

Hoosier Deep Throat (above is one of the few known photos of him), it seemed, was ticked. We knew why.

“How could they have blown that game?” he asked from a dark shadow that revealed nothing.

“Perhaps a better question,” we said, pointing to the torn SI covers, “was how could you do that to Kate Upton?”

We heard a swallowing sound. An empty shot glass bounced our way. We smelled rock-gut whiskey. Hoosier Deep Throat was really taking this Ohio State loss hard. Or, less likely, he didn’t like our sense of humor.

“There’s no way, with an outright Big Ten title at stake, with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament at stake, you play like that!” Hoosier Deep Throat shouted. A match flared. The tip of a cigarette glowed almost as brightly as ESPN sideline reporter Sam Ponder’s diamond ring.

“Indiana got out-toughed, out-rebounded, out-hustled, out-played, out-executed, out-run, out everything!” Hoosier Deep Throat shouted. "It was out-scored 14-2 on fast-break points. That CAN'T HAPPEN!"

Another empty shot glass flew past us. It smelled like Schlitz beer, which was popular when Watergate was big news and women preferred 6 Million Dollar TV Men.

How do we know what Schlitz beer smells like and are we old enough to remember the 6 Million Dollar Man?

You ask too many questions.

“Maybe you should look at the big picture,” we said. “Indiana is 25-5. It’s been ranked No. 1 for a big chunk of the season. A win at Michigan might make it the best of the No. 1 seeds. It’s been a great year.”

Hoosier Deep Throat said nothing.

“You’re only as good as your last performance,” we added. We pride ourselves on the quality of our clich├ęs.

Hoosier Deep Throat’s glowing cigarette end shot off sparks of red and white.

"Indiana's season is like driving the length of the field in football," he said, spitting out the words like bullets. "You get to the 5-yard line, and you knock it in for a touchdown. You don't settle for a field goal or turn it over. You finish the bleeping job. You win the Big Ten outright and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney and the NCAA Tournament the right way. You don't back in because of a silly tiebreaker."

He paused. Somewhere in the basement darkness, a cricket chirped three times. 

“And then there was the net cutting deal!” He was raging now. “Are you kidding me? Whose knuckle-headed idea was that? They lost a bleeping game and a big bleeping opportunity. You wanna cut nets -- win. You wanna celebrate something -- win! Don’t do it after playing soft down the stretch. When it mattered most, Indiana had more turnovers than a bleeping bakery.”

Hoosier Deep Throat crushed out a cigarette and lit up another.

“Looks like I picked the wrong bleeping week to quit smoking,” he said. He took a deep drag.

"You know those things will kill you," we said.

"Watching another performance like Ohio State will do that first," he said.

The good news -- he was starting to calm down.

“According to Tom Crean, the net cutting was to honor the group that brought the program back from the Kelvin Sampson mess,” we said. “It was earned through a season of hard work, and school officials wanted to reward the players.”

“Reward them if they win, make them practice all night if they lose," Hoosier Deep Throat said. "That’s what Coach K did when Duke got hammered at Miami earlier this season. If you don't like it, join a knitting club.”

“We’re not even going to go there,” we said. “Look, everybody would have preferred a win, but you don’t always get what you want. Just ask the Rolling Stones.”

“Is that supposed to be bleeping funny!” Hoosier Deep Throat shouted so loud we thought his vocal cords would explode. We knew enough to shut up.

“Indiana’s been talking about winning a national championship all season,” Hoosier Deep Throat said. “It takes a special group to do that. A tough group. A group that peaks in March and the beginning of April rather than February. These guys ain’t been the same since winning at Michigan State. Maybe all the glory made them soft. Maybe they forgot where they came from.”

He stomped his cigarette to bits; lit up another.

“You know what boils my butt. It’s a two-point game with five minutes left Tuesday night, so make the plays and win the sucker. That’s what a national champion does, especially at home. They didn't come close to doing that.”

Hoosier Deep Throat began pacing, shadows swirling around him like storm clouds. So much for him calming down.

“Indiana can still win the Big Ten outright by winning at Michigan on Sunday,” we said, using the same soothing tone a dentist uses before tearing a tooth out of your jaw. “It can still earn a NCAA tourney No. 1 seed, get a close early round location, get a Sweet 16 berth in Indianapolis and wind up at the Final Four in Atlanta. It’s all there for the Hoosiers.”

Hoosier Deep Throat stopped pacing. Shadows thickened around him.

“I ain’t stupid. I know that. But that’s just talk. And there’s a bunch more talk about IU clinching the Big Ten tourney No. 1 seed if Michigan State beats Wisconsin tonight. All that does is weaken resolve. It ain’t about somebody else losing. It’s about you winning. We need to kick Michigan's bleep!"

He stomped his foot. The light bulb twirled as if caught in a tornado.

“This is head knocking time," he said. "And if the Hoosiers don’t start knocking some bleep, they’re gonna end up a No. 2 or No. 3 seed at some place that sells Schlitz by the bleeping wine glass!”

A deep, uncomfortable silence followed. It was the kind you hear when an adult admits to being a Justin Bieber fan, not that we’re admitting we know what that actually sounds like.

“Look the Big Ten is brutally tough,” we said. “Look what happened to Michigan at Penn State or Wisconsin against Purdue. The selection committee understands that. A potential 14-4 record in a conference this strong will go a long way with them. So will a 13-5 mark. And no matter what happens on Sunday or in the Big Ten tourney, IU will be VERY well prepared for any team and situation in the NCAA Tournament. All things are very much possible.”

A wine glass rolled toward us. Silence followed. Hoosier Deep Throat was gone. His message, however, was not.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

'Locked-in' IU Set To Clinch Outright Big Ten Title



Do not think, for one minute, that Indiana is going to blow this Big Ten opportunity.

The Hoosiers understand the opportunity. Win tonight at home against Ohio State and they earn their first outright conference title since 1993. Win Sunday at Michigan, where no visiting team has won all season, and they almost certainly clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tourney.

First, though, comes the No. 14 Buckeyes. IU smacked them around last month in Value City Arena. They’d love to return the favor tonight, especially on Senior Night in the final home games for Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston.

That won’t happen.

The Hoosiers reached this position last weekend after beating Iowa on Saturday, and then, just as practice was beginning on Sunday, learning that Michigan State and Wisconsin had lost. That meant IU had a 13-3 Big Ten record with two games to go, while Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan were tied for second with 11-5 marks. Indiana had clinched at least a co-championship, its 21st. Only Purdue, with 22, has won more in Big Ten history.

Crean watched Michigan hold off Michigan State in his Cook Hall office as his players were warming up, then joined them with the news.

"We're extremely excited about the fact that we have clinched at least a share of this going into this week, a big week obviously with a home game against Ohio State and a road game to finish up the regular season at Michigan," Crean said. "The great thing about our guys is once they learned it, they were excited, but within minutes went right back to work inside of practice. It is kind of a microcosm of how this season has gone. They've really been locked into moment and what's most important, which is getting better.

"We're excited to be where we are at but we know there's a lot more things to accomplish, and I think that's what makes it exciting to go through with this group because they really want to improve and get better."

That starts with beating Ohio State (21-7 overall) to avoid having to share the title. Michigan State was in the same position last year with two games to go and lost them both.

“It’s something that we’ve been working for all year, so it’s obviously exciting for us,” forward Cody Zeller said. “But it’s only a share of the Big Ten championship. We were right back to work to getting this win and having it all to ourselves.”

That it would also mean a lot to the seniors, who endured so much losing in their first two seasons, is another motivator.

“They just deserve it the most of pretty much anyone on the team,” freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell said. “Just what they’ve gone through, to do something we haven’t done in so many years, to win this for them is gonna feel special to us, but to them too.”

Added Zeller: “It would mean a lot, because we’ve only heard stories of all the stuff they’ve gone through before me and Yogi were here. I know it would mean a lot to them.”

IU’s loss last week at Minnesota knocked it down just one spot, to No. 2 behind Gonzaga.

Crean was asked during the Big Ten teleconference if he was surprised that such a tradition-rich program as Indiana hadn’t won an outright conference title since 1993.

"I don't really think of it like that. I think it shows it's a hard league and all we can focus on is what we have in the seasons that we've been here," Crean said. "When you think about 1993, all the things that have transpired in the league, it goes to show how great this league has been over a period of time.

"There's been a lot of great teams, and Indiana has been one of them for a long time. Our focus has been: How do we keep doing what we've been doing and how do we do it even better? There's not been a lot of time spent on what didn't happen before we were here."

Crean has endured his own Cream ‘n Crimson tribulations. IU had three straight 20-loss seasons, the worst stretch in a program history that stretches well past a hundred years, as he rebuilt from the Kelvin Sampson mess.

The Hoosiers went 27-9 and reached the Sweet 16 last year. Now their 25-4 overall and positioned to win a national championship.

"The one thing that all of us have learned that came from different programs and came to Indiana and dealt with everything that happened is you never take winning for granted,” Crean said. “Ever. When you lose it, it is so hard to get it back. You have to work that much harder to get it back. Our fans need to really look at it as there's a ton of excitement around it right now, let's remember where we were. Let's not take anything for granted and let's keep building on what's been happening."


*****

Big news for Indiana’s football program: it has landed a four-star receiver in Taj Williams from Florida. He’s part of the 2013 class. That means coach Kevin Wilson now has five four-star players in this 23-player group.

The 6-4 Williams is rated as the nation’s No. 25 receiver according to Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service that first broke the news. He picked Indiana over Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Florida State and others.



Monday, March 4, 2013

IU Clinches Big Ten Title -- Now Keep Going



Indiana won a championship by doing nothing.

In a manner of speaking.

The Hoosiers earned their 21st Big Ten title on what was, at least from a game standpoint, a day of rest. When Wisconsin lost a stunning home game to previously struggling Purdue, when Michigan State lost at Michigan, both happening on Sunday, IU clinched at least a tie for the conference crown.

Indiana, of course, did its job by beating Iowa on Saturday.

It is 13-3 with two games remaining -- Tuesday against Ohio State at Assembly Hall; Sunday at Michigan.

Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan are all 11-5.

The Hoosiers haven’t won any kind of Big Ten title since 2002, when under coach Mike Davis they went on to the national championship game, losing to Maryland. Their last outright Big Ten crown came in 1993. They can duplicate that by beating the Buckeyes or the Wolverines.

Beat the Buckeyes and get it over with.

All this is great. It’s a major accomplishment given where the program was just a couple of years ago, when Kelvin Sampson ruined things with his phone call habits and his knack for recruiting, at least in part, the wrong kind of guys.

Only Purdue, with 22 Big Ten titles, has won more than Indiana.

So now let’s get to the big picture -- win these last two games and clinch a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed.

That’s the ultimate goal. A No. 1 seed gets you to opening round games in either Dayton or Lexington. Assuming IU would be No. 1 in the Midwest Regional, it would then play Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Indianapolis.

The Final Four is in Atlanta.

The Hoosiers don’t want to add uncertainty by losing. If they would lose at Michigan, which is undefeated at home this season, and then lose in the Big Ten tourney, that very well could knock them to a No. 2 NCAA tourney seed.

Yes, you could argue that IU (25-4 overall) already has done enough to earn a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed. It is 5-0 against ranked Big Ten teams and is 6-2 on the conference road.

That’s especially impressive given the Big Ten is, by far, the best conference in America.

Still, if the Hoosiers would lose at Michigan and then in the conference tourney in Chicago, coupled with last week’s loss at Minnesota, that would given the NCAA selection committee a chance to move another team into a No. 1 seed.

For now, it seems Gonzaga and Duke are No. 1 locks.

Gonzaga is 29-2 and 11-2 against teams in the top 100 RPI. Its only losses are to Illinois and Butler (on a last-second shot at Hinkle Fieldhouse).

Duke is 25-4 and just got forward Ryan Kelly back from a foot injury. That’s the same Kelly who scored 36 points to beat Miami in his first game back.

If Indiana stumbles down the stretch, it could get passed by Kansas (25-4), Georgetown (23-4), Louisville (24-5) or even Michigan (24-5).

The best Cream ‘n Crimson scenario is to win this week’s games and make the Big Ten tourney irrelevant as far as the NCAA selection committee is concerned. That would mean IU would have won its last three games and seven of its last eight, including a road victory at Michigan. It would provide just the kind of momentum you want entering postseason play.

The Hoosiers are right where they want to be. They just need to finish the regular season job.

That starts Tuesday night against Ohio State.

*****

Indiana has opened its spring football practice. Optimism is high the Hoosiers can finally return to bowl relevance by winning at least six games.

They return a ton of players (including quarterback Tre Roberson). They went 1-11 in coach Kevin Wilson’s first season, 4-8 in his second. They lost heart breakers to Ball State, Navy and Michigan State – and that was despite not having Roberson (he missed most of the season with a broken leg) and a ridiculously bad defense (it gave up 163 points in its last three games and allowed 231.3 rushing yards in every game).

IU will open its season on a Thursday night when it hosts Indiana State on Aug. 29. It’s the third time the Hoosiers have opened on a Thursday night. They beat Eastern Kentucky in 2009 and Towson in 2010.

They also have eight home games. The others are Navy (Sept. 7), Bowling Green (Sept. 14), Missouri (Sept. 21), Penn State (Oct. 5), Minnesota (Nov. 2), Illinois (Nov. 9) and Purdue (Nov. 30).