March Madness: Predicting how far Indiana will go in the NCAA Tournament
When Indiana won 2 games in the Big Ten Tournament last week, it thought it had not only done plenty to get into the Big Dance but also had avoided being one of the last 4 at-large teams in.
Many others agreed.
The NCAA Selection Committee, however, did not. The Hoosiers were one of the last 4, potentially even the very last team, in the Field of 68, leaving them to play in the First Four in Dayton on Tuesday night. A 12-seed in the East Region, the Hoosiers get a matchup against fellow 12-seed Wyoming, with the winner advancing to play No. 5-seed Saint Mary’s in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.
How exactly IU ended up in a “play-jn” game is a bit of a mystery. Although Indiana scuffled down the stretch of the regular season, winning only 4 of its last 12, the Hoosiers recovered in the Big Ten Tournament. First, they beat Michigan in what seemed like an NCAA Tournament elimination game, then they upset league champ Illinois. Yet, Indiana still only barely snuck through, while Michigan avoided a First Four ticket with an 11 seed. (And in doing so, the Wolverines became the first at-large NCAA team only 3 games above .500 since Georgia in 2001).
Perhaps it was Indiana’s nonconference strength of schedule — in the 300s — that dragged down the Hoosiers’ résumé, more so even than its slide late in the regular season. Regardless, IU is where it has been, playing to keep its season alive.
Indiana is playing more confidently right now than it has all season, but the Hoosiers should expect to be tested against Wyoming in Dayton late on Tuesday night.
The Cowboys, 1 of 4 Mountain West teams in the tournament, received one of the last at-large spots after a 25-8 season that included a 13-5 mark in conference play. They fell in the semifinals of the conference tournament on Friday, as their comeback bid fell short in the final minutes. The loss left Wyoming wondering whether it would be on the good side of the bubble. But the Cowboys had just enough wins to get in, including 4 vs. Quad 1 opponents and 7 in Quad 2.
Tuesday will mark a matchup of quality front lines, featuring Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson vs. Wyoming’s Jeremiah Oden, Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike. The Cowboys are solid defensively, especially in the paint, and allow only 65.5 points per game on less than 42-percent shooting.
Meanwhile Ike and Maldonado carry much of the load offensively, averaging 19.6 and 18.4 points per game, respectively.
The game might turn into a real stalemate on the interior, and if so, perhaps it comes down to guard play. Veteran point guard Xavier Johnson has been fantastic of late, but he’ll need help from either Parker Stewart or Miller Kopp. Senior Drake Jeffries leads Wyoming on the perimeter, where he’s hit 92 3-pointers this season, at a 42% rate.
If Indiana gets by Wyoming, it’ll get a date with a dangerous Saint Mary’s team. The Gaels are considered a dark-horse pick for a good NCAA run, after a successful season in which they finished 25-7. Saints Mary’s, one of the slowest-paced teams in the country that barely allows 60 points per game, has lost only once to anyone other than Gonzaga since Jan. 8, and even beat the ‘Zags during the regular season.
The Hoosiers have a lot going for them right now, mainly the combination of Jackson-Davis and Johnson, who seem to have developed a solid connection over the last few weeks.
If IU can play like it did in the Big Ten Tournament, not only in the 2 wins but also in the loss to hot Iowa, then it’s likely the Hoosiers eek by the Cowboys. What would a Saint Mary’s matchup bring? Tough to tell. The first to 50 might be victorious.
The Hoosiers can beat the Cowboys and Saint Mary’s, but a date with UCLA on Saturday, if the Bruins beat Akron, would likely spell the end for IU.