PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Four years might not constitute an NCAA tournament drought for many schools.
At Indiana, that might as well be considered an eternity.
So don’t mind Hoosiers fans who are more than a little amped by the turnaround that has taken what was a gutted program a few years ago and turned it into a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament that is about to face No. 13 seed New Mexico State (26-9) in the South Region on Thursday.
The Hoosiers (25-8) have known for a while they’re back—if their December upset of Kentucky wasn’t enough evidence. But still seeing their name announced Sunday night was validation of the job performed by coach Tom Crean in just a few short years.
“These guys are honored to be here. You can see it,” Crean said. “There’s nobody that feels like they’ve arrived or that they’re just happy to be here. There’s nobody that’s taking it lightly. And I think that’s the way that this team has evolved over a period of time. They know what they’ve earned.”
Indiana was a tournament staple for more than 20 years, making an appearance every season from 1980-2003, and then making three more trips from 2006-08. That was when Crean arrived amid a NCAA investigation for a phone-call scandal that occurred under his predecessor, Kelvin Sampson. Within six weeks, the program was gutted.
Crean’s first team included only two returnees, both walk-ons, two scholarship players (Tom Pritchard and Matt Roth) recruited by Sampson, a junior college transfer and one freshman (Verdell Jones III) that Crean convinced to sign with the Hoosiers in April.
After three seasons of struggle where the Hoosiers were a combined 28-66, Indiana produced its most memorable regular season in nearly a decade. It became the first Big Ten team in nearly six decades to knock off a No. 1 team and a No. 2 team in the same season. It finished with a perfect nonconference record for the first time since 1989-90, a school-record 18 victories at Assembly Hall and three regular-season wins over top-five teams for the first time in school history.
A win over the Aggies on Thursday would give Indiana its most wins since the 1992-93 team won 31 games. The Hoosiers already snapped the school’s longest NCAA absence since the late 1960s and early 70s.
“Back to the beginning of the year, it wasn’t anybody that picked us to be here, let alone 4th seed, let alone winning 25 games. I don’t think outside expectations drive us,” Crean said. “They’re like anybody else, when they’re doubted, when they’re criticized, I’m sure they’re going to take that to heart. We’ll have our times we throw that out there. We’ll have our times where somebody will say something and we’ll use it. But this team right now, they’re in a place where they’ve just got to understand what makes them successful.”
While Indiana is back, the Hoosiers aren’t 100 percent. Jones was lost for the season due a torn ACL in his right knee suffered in the Big Ten tournament against Penn State. Jones scored 1,347 points in his career, but after all the problems the Hoosiers overcame won’t even get to play this week. As an added tug, he’s sick and is being isolated from his teammates.
Even without Jones, Indiana’s biggest concern isn’t in the backcourt, but up front where New Mexico State features a massive frontcourt that’s Big Ten quality in terms of size and a versatile star in forward Wendell McKines, who averages a double-double. McKines also has NCAA experience from 2010 when the Aggies nearly knocked off Michigan State in the opening round.
When told Wednesday how much Indiana talked of needing to focus on him, McKines joked, “I’m a middle child so I enjoy the attention.”
“Sounds like Indiana is going to focus on me so that means my teammates are going to have a whole lot of opportunity to be successful in this game,” McKines said. ” … I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see any defenses I haven’t seen. I know how to go about being successful.”
This is the second tournament appearance since Marvin Menzies took over as coach in Las Cruses, but this team is unique for the amount of length and girth Menzies has accumulated. McKines, at 6-foot-6, is the Aggies leading rebounder at 10.8 per game, but the rest of the Aggies’ frontcourt is 6-foot-8 or taller. NMSU ranks third in the country in rebounding margin and lead the country in free throws attempted—by more than 100 over the next closest school.
“I’ve got two brother-in-laws in the NFL that would probably have a lot of interest in watching these guys with the size of body and the speed they have,” Crean said. “They look like they’re full of tight ends and defensive ends when you look at them. They’re a big team.”
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