Last week, we looked at the Dangerous Outsiders, the Royal Blues, and the Title Snipers. This week, we turn to four legitimate championship contenders. So far we've examined NC State, Ohio State, and Louisville. See the box below for those links. Now, it's time for the no. 1 team in all the Americas — the Indiana Hoosiers.
If there was one moment last season when a college basketball game stopped obeying the usual laws and got all transcendent on us — when fast-paced, free-flowing athleticism meshed with the beauty of complex execution and became a kind of sublime, gasp-inducing display of fulfilled offensive potential — it came during the Indiana-Kentucky shootout in the Sweet 16.
When I look back at the 2012 tournament, that's the game that will stick in my memory. Hoosiers coach Tom Crean attacked Kentucky with a game plan that some called ballsy and some called insane. Either way, they were right. He played Kentucky's game, at Kentucky's speed. You have to wonder if at some point the week before, a timid assistant tried to approach Crean and say, "Um ... coach? Just so we're all on the same page, you know we're playing Kentucky, right? The Kentucky? The main one?"
The really crazy part is that his players were zealots for the cause. Free of self-doubt, 100 percent committed, onboard from the start. They believed in the mission. They played like they could run Kentucky off the floor, or at least exchange blows for 40 minutes, and advance. It was a bold show of cojones, and those are few and far between in a college basketball landscape where scoring keeps decreasing and teams become more predictable and cautious every season.
The result? Well, it was spectacular. Indiana played its best offensive game, by raw efficiency, since an early February win over Illinois. They shot a better percentage than Kentucky, they held their own on the boards, and they never stopped running. With 10:30 remaining in the first half, they trailed 29-20, and it was at that exact moment when the best seven minutes in the college basketball season began. Christian Watford (who became an Indiana legend earlier in the season, against the same team, with this spine-tingling shot) scored 13 points in seven minutes, Jordan Hulls dished out a slew of assists, and with 3:29 left in the first half, Indiana took a 43-39 lead. For the first time in the tournament, and maybe for the first time since December, Kentucky was reeling from a shot to the stomach.
We all know how it played out. The Wildcats responded to that body blow by breaking out the heavy artillery and scoring with almost-surreal offensive efficiency. After about 72 frenzied possessions for both teams, Kentucky came away with a 102-90 win.
But it's important to remember those moments, late in the first half and early in the second, when Indiana was officially out of their minds and the future champions had to pause for a moment of silent respect. Because while those Wildcats are now off making their millions in the NBA, almost every one of those Hoosiers is back, cojones and all. And that loss, in the year's most gripping game, marked them as the team to beat for a season that hadn't even begun.
Indiana: The Perfect Team for an Imperfect Year
The Gist: What you've heard from me a million times during these previews, and what you'll hear from pundits all year, is that the title race is wiiiiiiide open. It's been repeated like a favored line of scripture, and it happens to be true, but it doesn't mean we lack an elite team. With studs at every position, Indiana is poised to complete a program revival that Crean started with a 6-25 season in 2008-09. There are a lot of demons to be exorcised from a program that was in ruins not too long ago, and the Hoosiers find themselves in the perfect year to chase a redemptive title.