BLOOMINGTON – Over and over, as his team clawed its way off the bubble this week in Indianapolis, IU coach Mike Woodson feigned ignorance at the Hoosiers’ postseason prospects.
“Until the committee says Indiana's going to the tournament,” he said after Saturday’s last-second loss to Iowa, “we're still sitting here waiting to hear those words.”
That wait — six years long — is over. The Hoosiers are dancing.
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IU secured a No. 12 seed in Dayton, sending the Hoosiers to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. They will face Wyoming for a chance to play St. Mary's in Portland later in the week. Tipoff times will be announced later Sunday.
"You come to college to play basketball," Woodson said Sunday after the selection show. "You come to make the tournament and get an education. A lot of these guys have been sitting on the sideline for years watching basketball played in March and never knowing what it's about.
"I think it's a beautiful thing. I'm so thrilled."
They almost certainly would not have been in position to hear their name called Sunday without their excellent work Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Beginning with a dramatic comeback victory against Michigan, IU grabbed two crucial wins in this week’s Big Ten tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. First, the Hoosiers erased Michigan’s 17-point lead in the No. 8/9-seed matchup Thursday, using a 28-4 run to topple the stunned Wolverines. Then, Woodson’s team battled past top-seeded Illinois in a grinding, defense-first affair.
Indiana’s run ended when a Jordan Bohannon bank shot from at least 30 feet away gave Iowa an 80-77 victory in what might have been the game of the event. But the Hoosiers’ overall body of work in the state capital moved them from, in all likelihood, off the wrong side of the bubble before tipoff Thursday morning to safely in the field by the time it was announced Sunday night.
“I don't think anyone wants to see us right now,” IU forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said after the loss to Iowa. “I think we've proven not only to the Big Ten but to the country that we're a top team that can compete with anyone. It took a last-second 3 to beat us, to the hottest team in the Big Ten right now, and it stings, but at the same time I feel like we've got a lot of ball left.”
The last time the Hoosiers could safely count on that, Barack Obama was still president.
Woodson is Indiana’s third head coach since his alma mater last secured a place in the field of 68.
Tom Crean guided the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16, after winning the outright Big Ten regular-season title, in 2016, but was fired a year later after failing to reach the tournament at all. Archie Miller, Crean’s successor, likely would have secured a berth in 2020 — his only 20-win season in four years in charge at IU — but the COVID-forced cancellation of March Madness cost him that opportunity.
Hired last spring after Miller’s dismissal, Woodson appeared to have the Hoosiers comfortably on course for the field this winter. Indiana began the season 16-5, and 7-4 in Big Ten play, before a string of five-straight losses threatened to unravel that progress.
But the Hoosiers rebounded, beginning with an overtime loss at Ohio State (the last of those five consecutive defeats). From there, including those two wins in the Big Ten tournament, IU won four of six, the Michigan and Illinois victories proving particularly crucial. Even the loss to eventual Big Ten tournament champion Iowa won’t have done the Hoosiers much harm, underscoring even further how much they have improved across the last month.
A nonconference strength of schedule in the 300s depressed Indiana’s seed ceiling. After Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Richmond all either stole bids or dramatically improved their resumes at their respective conference tournaments over the weekend, that nonconference schedule might have left Indiana sweating any inclusion in the field Sunday.
But the Illinois win in particular allowed the Hoosiers to ease into the field without much stress. Now, they’ll carry that good form into an event they’ve waited six frustrating years to rejoin. Any further wins in the next three weeks would only sweeten what has become a successful first season for Woodson in Bloomington.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana basketball will play Wyoming in March Madness' East Region