Last week, Indiana basketball achieved a milestone. When Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller were selected No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in the 2013 NBA draft, the Hoosiers joined an exclusive club: One of 13 teams in college hoops history to have at least two players selected in the top five of the same draft, the Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen discovered Monday.
In the modern college hoops exposure economy, perhaps nothing is more impressive than landing multiple players in the highest echelons of the NBA draft; John Calipari's ability to do so at Kentucky has made him the dominant recruiting force of the past decade. That Indiana coach Tom Crean can play on that level, given where this IU's program was five years ago, really is a remarkable achievement.
That's one interpretation, anyway. The other is less charitable, but it's also impossible to overlook. Ben sums it up with this: "Indiana underachieved more than any similarly talented team in NCAA tournament history."
How so? Five of the 13 teams in the Two Top-Five Picks Club (we really need a catchier name) went on to win the national title. Only three failed to reach the Final Four, and just two -- Duke in 2002, and North Carolina in 1984, which both won national titles with the same players in preceding seasons -- ended their runs in the Sweet 16. Those facts are enough to earn the Hoosiers this ignominious title from the WSJ: "Biggest Underachiever in NCAA History." Yeah. Ouch.
There's certainly a case to be made. Indiana was one of the few teams in recent college hoops history to feature not one, but two genuine National Player of the Year candidates. Oladipo finished as a first-team All-American, Zeller on the second team; both players ended their seasons in the top 10 (Zeller third, Oladipo ninth) in Ken Pomeroy's kPOY metric. In all, Indiana mixed NBA chops (Oladipo, Zeller), veteran excellence (Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Will Sheehey) and young talent (Yogi Ferrell) into a blend that was the best offensive team in the country for much of its run, featured four 1,000-point scorers for the first time in IU history, and won the program's first outright Big Ten title since 1993 in a historically loaded league.
Given all that, the Hoosiers' tournament performance -- including a near-upset to the fighting Khalif Wyatts and a 50-point splat against Syracuse in the Sweet 16 (which began with a 29-11 Orange lead, and was never close) -- can't be considered anything other than a disappointment. How could it?
Likewise, the NBA's impressions of Zeller and Oladipo, in particular Zeller's otherworldly measurements at the combine, have caused some to revisit recurring complaints. Zeller didn't touch the ball enough. A 7-footer with a 36-inch standing vertical shouldn't lower his torso and play under opposing defenders so often. That an already-great Zeller, and thus an already-great IU team, should have been even more.
There is some truth to all this. When you're 7-feet tall and you can launch yourself that high into the air from a standstill, but your biggest purported flaw is that you struggle against "athleticism," something's not quite right. I've heard plenty of IU fans wail and gnash their teeth at the rare opportunity lost in 2013, particularly as Zeller tested through the roof and Oladipo shot up draft boards last week.
That's not unfair: Indiana's tournament finish really was about as disappointing as it gets for a No. 1-seeded title favorite. (Even the President picked IU to win it all. Presidential disappointment can't be overlooked here.) The Hoosiers didn't lose to a plucky underdog in the game of its life. They got punched in the face by a buzzsaw of a defense and they froze. Twelve of their 15 3s clanged off the rim. Let's be candid: At times, it appeared Indiana hadn't adequately prepared for Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone; other coaches I talked to in the wake of the loss were shocked Crean played Zeller at the top of the key, instead of under the rim, where his offensive rebounding was needed most. The result wasn't pretty.
But there's also more to the story. For one, Syracuse might have been the worst possible matchup for the Hoosiers, all length and size and forceful interior rebounding. Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche towered over Ferrell and Hulls. The Orange came strapped with a 2-3 zone that held opponents to the third-lowest 3-point percentage (28.4 percent) in the country last season, and was better than ever in the tournament. Two days after the IU win, the Orange held Marquette, which won 74-71 at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 25, to 39 points in 54 possessions.
In other words: It's the NCAA tournament! Wacky stuff happens in 40 minutes of single-elimination basketball. Sample size is important. Matchups can kill. Surviving the tournament to win a title is an insane accomplishment; falling short somewhere along the way need not be a proportional indictment. Judging a team's legacy -- or using draft picks as a cudgel with which to whack a coach -- risks a vast oversimplification of the issue. As Calipari, who would know a thing or two about this kind of criticism, has said: "We just want to be up to bat."
There are other caveats. Oladipo was a totally unknown three-star recruit before Crean brought him to Bloomington, Ind., and you have to give credit where it's due. Likewise, the 2013 draft was not exactly well-regarded by NBA GMs, in case you hadn't heard. Having two top-five picks this season might require some sort of tiny "this was a bad draft" asterisk. Why should we retcon the entire 2013 season after that draft, again? (Oh, and speaking of which, noting that the 1984 Tar Heels and 2002 Blue Devils won national titles in previous years doesn't mean their eventual Sweet 16 finishes were any less disappointing, does it? If it can happen to Dean Smith and Michael Jordan, it can happen to anyone.)
Reason requires evaluating last year's IU team on much more than a one-game sample. In every other respect, the season was a success: Big Ten outright title, first- and second-team All-Americans, two top-five draft picks, ongoing recruiting resurgence, continued restoration of a once-cratered hoops power. It checked all the boxes, save the big one. It would be easy, even tempting, for Indiana fans to look at that gap between talent and finish and sum to "most disappointing team in history." It would provide an easy target, and sports fans do adore an easy target. Emotion works better that way. Nuance is chore.
Even having the opportunity to blame that target in the first place requires overlooking years of hard-fought program resurrection, just as it requires a thoroughly unreasonable attitude about the way we should ultimately remember good teams. Ben wasn't making that argument, but plenty of others have. There's so much more to it than that.