If you've been following along this entire college basketball season, you'll appreciate just how big an achievement it is that Indiana is heading to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Hoosiers looked terrific in a mighty entertaining 73-67 win over longtime rival Kentucky on Saturday in Des Moines, getting sensational performances from senior point guard Yogi Ferrell and freshman big man Thomas Bryant. Even without their usual high-flying, 3-point-splashing antics, the Hoosiers found a way to win, a testament to head coach Tom Crean.
Indiana toppled a team that at one point was the No. 1 team in the country. Not a bad way to punch a ticket to the first alliterative round of the NCAA tournament.
“We're obviously elated to win a game of this magnitude, not just because it's the NCAA tournament and the Round of 32 but because it's against such a great program," Crean said. "We've got a lot of respect for Kentucky, obviously got a lot of respect for John (Calipari) and admiration for how he coaches and what he does. That team was every bit as good as what we thought they were from watching them on film.”
[MORE BIG TEN: Hoosiers take down rival Kentucky, advance to Sweet Sixteen]
But the biggest deal of all is that the Hoosiers were even in this position to begin with.
Despite an offseason that featured more of the off-the-court issues that have earned Crean plenty of heat the past few seasons, there were big expectations at the start of the campaign. Indiana was tabbed as one of the Big Ten's best. But all of that crumbled thanks to a rocky start to the season, particularly two embarrassing losses at the Maui Invitational to Wake Forest and UNLV. A nationally televised pounding at Duke didn't help.
The Hoosiers rallied after that loss to Duke, winning their final five non-conference games and their first seven games of the Big Ten season, making for a 12-game winning streak. But even that long winning stretch didn't seem to appease critics, who thought an easy schedule had more to do with Indiana's success than a transformation from the early season. And it's true that nine games into an 8-1 start to the conference schedule, Indiana played just one team that ended up making the NCAA tournament, splitting a pair of contests with Wisconsin.
But the Hoosiers were winning in a way that made it seem like they were dangerous regardless of who they were playing. Indiana scored a ton of points, buried teams in a hurry and hit a school-record number of 3-pointers. Not to mention that Ferrell looked like one of the best players of the country and Bryant and OG Anunoby were emerging as talented freshmen. A mid-February win over then-top-five Iowa signaled the Hoosiers were legit. That status was cemented with a five-game winning streak to end the regular season that featured three wins over ranked teams. The Hoosiers were the regular-season conference champs.
Of course, things weren't always pretty for Indiana, and the Big Ten Tournament was the height of why doubters still existed, as the Hoosiers bowed out in their first game with an upset loss to Michigan.
But after all that, Indiana is still dancing. Do people think the Hoosiers are for real now? It really doesn't matter because March marches on and they're still standing.
“To see us in this position now to get such a great win is very promising for us," Ferrell said. "I feel like we've come a long way. I feel like we all believed in each other. This is a player-driven program, and we get on each other, we hold each other accountable. We take criticism, and we give criticism. I think that's our biggest advantage is, you know, we're very connected and when we are connected we can go a long way.”
“I love coaching them, and I know that sounds corny but I just love coaching them. It's not just because of December. It's the way they responded in the spring and the summer. We went through a few issues here and there, and they responded to all of that. We were getting better in December, even though we didn't play that way all the time," Crean said. "I knew we could be a good team. I think if I didn't believe we could be a good team, I don't think they would have ever bought into me the way that we were pushing them to be a great team. So I think we're going to get better. I know it's late in the year, but I think we can continue to get better.
"Long story short, they've responded all year to getting better. They've responded to success. They've responded to adversity. The more they're doubted, the better they are. There was no choice for this team in November and December to bond together in a very high way, a very big way based on the criticism that was out there, on us. They learned a lot about themselves. They learned a lot about controlling what you can control. They learned a lot about pushing each other even more. They learned about turning it up, turning the intensity level up, concentration and focus, and that's we've got to continue to do.”
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hoosiers gear right here]
For Crean, in particular, this NCAA tournament run is mighty redemptive — if not in his own mind, in the minds of fans and observers. After earning a No. 1 seed in the tourney a few years back, the Hoosiers missed the Big Dance in 2014 and snuck in on the right side of the bubble last season before losing in the Round of 64. The on-court struggles, if you want to view them as such, were compounded by a rash of off-court issues that ended in multiple players being dismissed from the program. That includes both players involved in a car accident where one hit the other after he exited the vehicle, winding up in the hospital for months.
When those losses in Maui happened early in the season, the "fire Crean" voices became louder than ever. But then came a Big Ten championship. And Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. Now Crean is a win away from advancing as far as an Indiana team has during his tenure.
“I feel like coach Crean has stayed on us throughout this entire year," Ferrell said. "He saw our potential, and when we had a rough start he stuck with us and he kept getting on us every single day just because he saw the greatness in us."
Both Crean and Ferrell said after Saturday's game that this team can still get better as the tournament progresses. Of course, that's going to be quite the challenge with No. 1-seed North Carolina waiting next.
But Saturday's game showed the Hoosiers can play with anyone, even on nights when the usual formula isn't working. And with how different this team looks now from what it looked like in Maui, you've got no choice to believe they can keep getting better all the way Houston.