Sunday March 18th, 2012

Indiana

The Hoosiers advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

How did Indiana get to the Sweet 16? How did it pull off multiple, breathtaking comebacks to beat VCU 63-61 in the NCAA tournament's most riveting third-round game? All that and more in my recap of Saturday in Bracketland:

PORTLAND, Ore. -- On this Saturday one year ago, Indiana coach Tom Crean was a TV analyst for the NCAA tournament, sitting behind a desk in Turner's Atlanta studio. The reason coaches take those gigs is for the recruiting boost: It helps them maintain a high profile despite not actually, you know, playing in the postseason. Crean's Hoosiers hadn't come anywhere near a postseason bid, going 12-20 and finishing last in the Big Ten for the second time in three years.

Crean got rather serious about the job, though, diving into his statistical prep work like he was building an in-season scouting report. He wanted to sound smart on-air, but he had an ulterior motive, inspired by all the opposition research he'd seen his brothers-in-law, Jim and John Harbaugh, do on rival football teams in their offseason. What, Crean was trying to pinpoint, are these NCAA tournament teams doing that we aren't? And for the ones who had just ended long tournament droughts, what was their formula?

He noticed that the Hoosiers' rate of committing fouls (they ranked 333rd in free-throw rate) was nowhere near that of tourney teams. Their turnover rate wasn't so bad, but it needed to improve, and they were giving up a few too many easy baskets on D. He looked at Penn State, which had earned an NCAA bid not because star Talor Battle got better, but because his supporting cast made huge leaps. That was their formula. And he looked at Michigan, which added a freshman catalyst, Tim Hardaway Jr., to a lineup that already had many of the right pieces. Crean was bringing in a much bigger freshman than Hardaway Jr. -- five-star, 6-foot-11 center Cody Zeller, the keystone recruit of IU's revival -- and he had a couple of unsung role players in sophomores Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey who were on the verge of breakout seasons.

The more Crean studied the tournament -- the more statistical splits he studied, film edits he watched, and games he analyzed -- the more he had a feeling. "You know what?" he thought to himself. "We are not that far away. We really are not that far away from this."

*******

Indiana makes comebacks. Here's the macro one: Its program was in such shambles in the wake of Hurricane Kelvin Sampson that when Crean took the job, in 2008, he inherited a squad that had 19 F-grades among its 14 players and rumors of drug abuse, and by the time he was done cleaning house, he was left with two walk-ons who'd combined for 30 points the previous season. They lost season-ticket holders in droves, and went 28-66 over the next three seasons and 8-46 in the Big Ten. They did not receive a single vote in the 2011-12 preseason AP or coaches' polls. An unofficial Big Ten preseason media poll picked the Hoosiers to finish ninth.

The Hoosiers proceeded to go 25-8 in the regular season; finish fifth in the conference; upset Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State; and climb from 333rd in defensive foul rate to 114th. They earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs, where they beat New Mexico State on Thursday and then VCU on Saturday in a 63-61 thriller that went down to the final possession. Next week, they will be making their first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2002.

Indiana wouldn't have escaped the Rose Garden without micro comebacks. Here's the first one: With 1:47 left in the first half against the Rams, whose HAVOC defense had already lived up to its brand by forcing 10 turnovers, the Hoosiers had fallen behind by nine, 42-33. Things were unraveling. Sheehey had drawn one of those mandatory "flagrant 1" technical fouls for elbowing on a rip-through, VCU had turned a couple of steals into layups, and they were on a 10-0 run. Junior Christian Watford, whom you know from the Three That Killed Kentucky in December, knew, he said, "that we were at a very vulnerable point."

He proceeded to go on a personal 8-0 run over the final 1:15 of the half, drilling back-to-back threes and hitting two free throws after being fouled on a drive. IU went into halftime with hope, down only 42-41. "We needed momentum," Crean said. "Christian brought momentum back to Indiana."

Here's the second micro-comeback: In the second half, the Hoosiers fell behind by nine again, at 57-48 with 12:28 left. They tried to prepare for VCU's pressure by putting seven defenders on the floor in Friday's practice -- they rotated in managers and walk-ons, and armed them with pads to jostle ballhandlers -- but IU would still commit 22 turnovers that resulted in 23 points. The Hoosiers kept putting themselves in holes, and they trailed by six, at 59-53, going into a timeout at the 5:07 mark. Crean gathered them 'round and reminded them that on Nov. 30 at NC State, they'd trailed by eight with less than eight minutes to go, and found a way to rally to win. Crean felt that they needed to be reminded that they were good.

The helter-skelter pace that VCU forces has a tendency to make opposing big men irrelevant, and the Rams had done that to Wichita State's Garrett Stutz on Thursday; he was a total non-factor in that 12-over-5 upset. Prior to that timeout Zeller, who'd been their star all season, had scored nine points and committed four turnovers. He was not exactly irrelevant, but he was having a sub-par game. He grabbed a defensive board on VCU's ensuing possession, then grabbed an offensive board on IU's next trip down the floor, drawing a foul and hitting one of two free throws.

Crean called a new play for Zeller at the 3:43 media timeout -- Indiana is the seventh most efficient after-timeout team in the tourney, and it excels at drawing up timely sets -- and he scored in an isolation on the right block, cutting VCU's lead to three. It was then that those previously unsung role players, whom Crean had high hopes for this offseason, made their biggest contributions. Oladipo scored -- and was fouled -- on a driving layup with 47 seconds left, and hit his free throw to tie the game. Crean trusted Oladipo enough not to call a timeout when he rebounded Troy Daniels' missed three with 23 seconds left, and let Oladipo go make a play. Crean had talked about playing a "downhill game" against VCU's pressure, and Oladipo in the open court was a downhill player.

He was cut off at the rim by Juvonte Reddic, losing the ball, but it fell right into the hands of his roommate Sheehey, whom Oladipo says "is always in the right place at the right time." It was a broken play and Sheehey was so wide open for a 12-foot jumper that his teammates, from the bench, could see the smile on his face as he rose, fired, and swished it to put Indiana up two, 63-61, with 13 seconds left.

All that was left for the Hoosiers to do was get a stop. Their defense, which was not great all season (it ranked seventh in the Big Ten in efficiency, while their offense was first), had been uncharacteristically stout down the stretch. VCU scored 57 points in the game's first 28 minutes and then was held to just four -- four! -- over the final 12 minutes. Crean guessed that VCU would try a high ball-screen for point guard Darius Theus, who hit the game-winning floater on such a set against Wichita State. It was a play that had the potential to put Zeller in a precarious situation if his man was the screener.

Zeller had chosen to be a part of Crean's rebuilding effort not because of the results, because there really weren't any before he arrived, but, the freshman said, "because I followed my gut." And here, Crean followed his gut, calling for a "55" defense that entailed switching every screen, because he believed that Zeller could handle it. As the clock wound down, it played out how they'd envisioned: Screen for Theus. Zeller isolated on him. A trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

It was at this moment that Zeller had a flashback, not to something he'd done, but to something he'd watched his brother Tyler experience in an up-two endgame scenario on Feb. 8: "Austin Rivers," Cody said, "with the ball against North Carolina." Tyler had hung back, losing track of the situation, and Rivers had drilled a three in his face to beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. Determined not to suffer the same fate, Cody pressed out, forcing Theus to drive -- and forcing him to kick the ball out to sophomore Rob Brandenberg, a 29.3 percent three-point shooter, on the left wing. Brandenberg released his potential game-winner from nearly the same spot that Watford had hit his dagger against Kentucky in December. Oladipo flew out to challenge the shot, and as Watford watched its flight, he said that "it seemed like it stayed in the air forever."

*****

When the Hoosiers ran off the Rose Garden court and burst into their locker room, amid much hollering and hugging, an assistant coach took a marker and wrote on the whiteboard, "14 STOPS IN 16 POSSESSIONS."

After giving up 42 points in the first half, the Hoosiers yielded just 19 in the second. They talked all season about stringing together three-stop streaks, but here, on their biggest stage, they'd gone 14-for-16 at shutting down VCU -- an improbable, stunning streak of lockdown D while the Rams tried to stall out the clock and cling to their lead. The 14th stop was Brandenberg's miss, which clanked off the rim and fell to the floor as the buzzer sounded.

The other thing on board was three letters: "ATL." They screamed, over and over again, "Hot-lanta! Hot-lanta!" Next stop for these comeback kids is the Georgia Dome, for a rematch with Kentucky. Watford, of course, was asked about his shot against the Wildcats, and whether the Hoosiers could do such a thing again. He said he'd rather not talk about Kentucky yet -- its game against Iowa State was still in progress and anyway, he wanted to savor what IU had just accomplished.

Crean was willing to talk about Watford's shot. At his press conference, he was asked what it was like to keep seeing it in ESPN commercials -- the same commercials that UK coach John Calipari had thanked the network for airing, because they angered his team. Although Crean loves digging into film of opponents and film of tourney teams, to figure out how to get to the dance, he also indulged in watching that clip. "It goes in every time," he said, smiling. "Every time, it never changes."

That shot never changes, but everything has changed for Indiana. Where there was once nothing, there is magic, and where there was once an empty postseason, there is the Sweet 16.

The Final Four Darkhorses

Wisconsin

Wisconsin's defense shut down John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor to advance. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Friday went down as the greatest Round-of-64 day ever, with two No. 2 seeds getting knocked out by 15s, but as much bracket-busting as all of those upsets did, the most-picked title contenders -- Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State -- all remain in the field. From a long-term view, the biggest bracket development is the emergence of a crew of viable Final Four darkhorses from outside the 1-2 lines. These are the best four:

1. Indiana: They've beaten Kentucky once already, and all that's left on the other side of the bracket is Baylor and Xavier or Lehigh. The Wildcats are a much, much better team than they were in December, but they let Iowa State stay into Saturday's game until a few minutes into the second half. If the Hoosiers continue their defensive momentum, another upset isn't out of the question.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers beating No. 1-seeded Syracuse wouldn't even be an upset, according to kenpom.com's projections, which give UW a 52 percent chance of winning in Boston. And that figure is based on the Orange's full-season numbers with Fab Melo, too, so the odds are probably even greater in the Badgers' favor. That could set up an Elite Eight game with an inconsistent Ohio State team that UW beat in Columbus on Feb. 26. Bo Ryan's first Final Four is within reach.

3. Louisville: The Cardinals are trying to pull a UConn coming out of the Big East tournament; they've now won six straight and look nothing like the team that flopped against Cincinnati, South Florida and Syracuse to close the regular season. They haven't allowed a point per possession on defense since Feb. 18 at DePaul, and in Phoenix, Rick Pitino would like to get revenge on Tom Izzo for knocking out one of the greatest Cardinals teams ever (Terrence Williams' No. 1-seeded Big East champs) in the 2009 Elite Eight. 4. Marquette: The Golden Eagles will either get Florida or Norfolk State -- two teams with very suspect defenses -- in the Sweet 16 in Phoenix, so expect to see them in the Elite Eight. They split with Louisville this season and are capable of hanging with Michigan State, although I worry that the Spartans could crush them on the offensive glass.

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