The Hoosiers should have come out of Selection Sunday feeling excited, and they did.
But their emotions were a bit more complicated than that.
After a successful Big Ten Tournament, the team waited for their name to be called until the very last region was unveiled. Michigan, a team Indiana recently defeated after coming back from a 17-point deficit, was revealed to be safely in the tournament as one of the No. 11 seeds.
Then came the Hoosiers. The No. 12 seed and one of the last At-Large bids handed out by the selection committee.
Once the team heard of their fate, Xavier Johnson tweeted out “They’ll pay for it” with a ninja emoji at the end. Trayce Jackson-Davis tweeted out one simple word: “Bet.”
“Definitely going to make us play with a chip on our shoulder,” said Johnson on Monday of the decision of the committee.
“I’m not disappointed we didn’t make it — we made it. We came ready to play. And the two guys next to me (Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson), we’re going to get the team ready to play as well. Didn’t put a chip on just my shoulder; it put the team — we’re all going to play with a chip on our shoulder, honestly.”
Now, instead of focusing on the chip on their shoulder, the Hoosiers need to be focusing on their legs and getting back to full health.
Instead of playing on Thursday or Friday, Indiana will have to play on Tuesday. This means they have just two full days of rest before they take on Wyoming in Dayton. However, they have become accustomed to playing without rest. To them, the extra two days are a bonus.
There were no breaks for the Hoosiers in Indianapolis– the site of their conference tournament. They defeated the Wolverines and Illinois before falling to Iowa on a last-second shot by Jordan Bohannon over the course of three days.
The IU players liked the feedback they got from their bodies while playing back-to-back games.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence coming in, playing a whole bunch of games back-to-back is important and it tells us about our legs. Now that we’ve got a day, well, you’ve got to win to go to the next day. And we’ve got a day off. So it’s going to be a better team,” Jackson-Davis said of the team’s conditioning during the Big Ten Tournament.
“There’s a benefit to not having too much time between games. We played well in Indy and hopefully we can put that together and carry it over here and get a win,” said Race Thompson.
In a quick turnaround, the most important person could be the Director of Athletic Performance Clif Marshall. Currently, in his fifth season with the team, Marshall was hired by former head coach Archie Miller. After Miller’s contract was bought out, Marshall was seen as a key member of the program and was retained. He was even assigned to the transition team that would help oversee the team during the coaching search.
Before games, he is seen leading warmups before the Candy Stripe period. Marshall watches over the team like a hawk as they utilize foam rollers and stretch, something he preaches to the team. In addition to their normal stretching routine, he has been making sure that players are hydrating and getting the necessary electrolytes that they need.
“He definitely helps us a lot and learning about taking care of our bodies. He always tells us to be a pro. So with him, he really just gives us all the tools we need to do that,” said Thompson.
Throughout the summer and the season, the Hoosiers have been building up for this moment, when they need to be prepared to play on short notice. In the summer, Marshall has put the team through many rigorous workouts.
At media day, Jackson-Davis claimed that he was in the best shape since his freshman year. Throughout the season, the team has worked on conditioning as well. Early in the season, head coach Mike Woodson implemented a rule that if the team turned the ball over 12 times a game, they would run.
In the early stretch of the season, when the team was still learning to play with each other, that number was reached multiple times, which meant sprints. All of that conditioning has paid off, however.
“With all the work we put in this summer, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal for me. And then just going on that run, I was actually just ready to play. I was ready to go after the first game. I was ready to play the next one. After the next one I was ready to play the next one,” said Jackson-Davis of the Big Ten Tournament.
“And even with the Iowa game we had, I feel like we were still competing at a really high level. And I feel like everyone was wanting to win, and we set out to win. I don’t think fatigue is big for us when you’re trying to win a championship.”
Strength might be as important as stamina on Tuesday. Wyoming has no player in the starting lineup who is shorter than 6-foot-4 inches.
The Cowboys utilize post-up plays on about 30% of their possessions if you include plays out of the post that lead to open shots. The guards are more than capable of backing down and getting into the paint also, which presents a challenge for the backcourt.
They run their offense mostly through Graham Ike their star player. Ike averages 24.8 points and 12.2 rebounds per game per 40 minutes. The offense revolves around him as he holds a usage rate of 35.2 percent.
“He’s a great player, lefty, likes to back down, go to the basket. They also have a point guard who’s 6’7″ and he likes to back down as well. So we’ve got to be locked in on defense, take away the stuff they want to do and just communicate with each other. I think we have the best defense in the league, in Big Ten, and one of the best in the country. We’re just going to have to show it,” Jackson-Davis said of the matchup.
Behind Ike, the second-leading scorer is Hunter Maldonado, the six-foot-seven-inch guard Jackson-Davis referenced. Maldonado averages 18.4 points and 6.3 assists per game. The majority of his baskets come from inside the paint.
But he hasn’t seen a player with the defensive tenacity and experience as the starting point guard for the Hoosiers.
“I believe he’s a good player,” said Johnson. “But I don’t think he’s played against the type of guard that’s actually going to pressure him a lot up the floor. And so I’m just ready to compete tomorrow against him.”
Despite being in the First Four, the team is still ecstatic to be included, somewhat, in the Big Dance. After all, no one on the roster has been to the NCAA Tournament in their career.
There is also hope for this team. Last season, UCLA defeated Michigan State in the play-in game. Then they went on a Cinderella run to the Final Four. The situation is similar to that of Indiana, a fallen blue blood that returned to the tournament.
However, for UCLA it was a short two-year break. For the Hoosiers, it has been six long years.
“It was pretty cool I’m not gonna lie, but at the same time I felt disrespected. I felt like we should’ve been high and not a last-four team in,” Miller Kopp said on the “Barstool Bench Mob” podcast. “But it is it what it is, and we’re in. Last year, UCLA was a last four team in and look where they ended up.”
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