Saturday, March 17, 2012
Indiana's resolve shows Hoosiers are back
By Ted Miller
PORTLAND -- There was 1-17 and Kelvin Sampson and the NCAA investigation and an implosion of a marquee program whose fans love their team because they really love the game of basketball -- and the game had become unwatchable at Indiana.
Misery was Hoosiers basketball over a 10-year stretch since the school last played for a national title in 2002. A proud program found itself cast into the fetid basement of the Big Ten with a 6-25 record in 2008-09.
The return of Indiana basketball from the depths was one of the major stories of this college hoops season. But everyone knew that story would be tested in the NCAA tournament. In college basketball, that's when plots thicken and teams are unmasked, their ultimate truth revealed by the pressure of win-or-go-home.
That the Hoosiers beat a rugged VCU team 63-61 to advance to the program's first Sweet 16 in a decade is meaningful in itself, of course. But the way the Hoosiers prevailed adds heft and substance to the accomplishment.
VCU was pushing Indiana around most of the night in the Rose Garden. It was dictating the pace. And its "havoc" defense forced a stunning 22 turnovers. The Hoosiers' previous worst this season was 18.
There were plenty of reasons to get flustered and to let doubt enter into the team huddle. Only it didn't. And during the final stretch, it was the IU defense, as well as clutch play, that stood out.
"I got to see this game, the last six or seven minutes through our players' eyes," coach Tom Crean said. "And they were so locked in and had such great resolve to never panic and to just truly believe that they were going to win."
Indiana players celebrate their win over VCU, in which they overcame a 9-point second-half deficit.
Locking in and showing resolve. That sounds a bit like ... Indiana basketball.
Defense? VCU led 57-48 with 12:30 left. The Rams would score just four more points. Sure, some of that was poor shooting. But how can you not credit a defense for yielding that few points over that long of a stretch?
Clutch plays? Indiana scored the final seven points. Cody Zeller made two free throws that closed the gap to three. Victor Oladipo's 3-point play tied the count. And Will Sheehey's short jumper from the side gave the Hoosiers the lead for good with 14 seconds left.
Meanwhile, VCU faltered. Senior leader Bradford Burgess missed a pair of free throws with just under a minute left. Troy Daniels missed a 3 with 23 seconds left. And Rob Brandenberg missed a trey that would have won the game at the buzzer.
Defense often wins championships. But not always. Grabbing 10 steals is great, but VCU needed to be able to produce in the half court. It needed to hit more than 9 of its 30 3-point attempts. And, really, the Hoosiers still shot 52.2 percent, including making 6 of 13 3-pointers (46.2 percent).
"The shots that we got late in the game, I feel good about those looks," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "I feel good about the guys that were taking them, they just didn't go in. And that's basketball."
Indiana fans know how basketball is. It giveth and it can taketh away. And even during the rise from the ashes this season, there probably was still a pit of worry in most Hoosiers fans' stomachs.
Are we really back? How will these guys react when the screws tighten in the NCAA tournament?
The answers? Yes. And like Indiana basketball players.