Indiana reaches NCAA tournament for first time since 2016

INDIANAPOLIS — Their defense was ferocious and steely, and the Indiana University men’s basketball players were masters of suspense Saturday in the Big Ten tournament’s semifinals, but they could not author a happy ending.

Instead, Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon threw down a 3-pointer from a handful of feet across half-court with 1.1 seconds remaining and the No, 24 ranked Hawkeyes won, 80-77.

A game-winner at the buzzer?

“Tough loss,” IU coach Mike Woodson said. “These sting a little bit.”

If there was anything that could be counted as a good loss, this may have been one, though, because Sunday evening IU got the word it has been invited to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. The Hoosiers meet the University of Wyoming in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday, as a 12th seed in the East Region of the 68-team tournament.

“At the end of the day, we’re in,” said IU coach Mike Woodson. “We’ve got to start studying (the 25-8 Cowboys).

Until the Iowa defeat, it was a do-you-believe-in fairytales journey in the Big Ten tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse for IU. The Hoosiers repelled Michigan in the closing seconds and upset No. 16 ranked Illinois likewise. They spurted to a 15-3 lead on Iowa early and built a nine-point margin with five-and-a-half minutes on the clock.

“We beat a tremendous team” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.

It was dueling supermen on the court, Iowa’s Keegan Murray. One of the nation’s hottest players, scoring 32 points and the Hawkeyes hit 14 3-pointers. IU’s low-post gem Trayce Jackson-Davis scored 31 points and collected 10 rebounds. Point guard Xavier Johnson, who has increasing been referred to as the “X Factor” for IU scored 20 points and passed for 9 assists.

Now 20-13, Woodson and the players wanted to believe their late resurgence versus tough teams would get them an invitation into the NCAA tournament. Bracketology wizards pretty much viewed them as one of the teams on the verge of being out by virtue of losing to Iowa. It is not an exact science and how other team performed over the last couple of days could determine IU’s chances.

Beating Michigan and Illinois in the Big Ten tournament had to be the difference-makers.

“Those two games were huge for us,” said IU senior point guard Rob Phinisee. “It’s huge for our state. It’s huge for our fan base.”

While Indiana was playing in a league that featured five ranked teams week-to-week — and nine teams were given invites to the NCAAs — the Hoosiers recorded only a limited number of quality wins.

They beat Illinois, but also lost to the Illini. They lost to Iowa in the tournament, but also during the regular season. They lost to Michigan State. They did split with highly-ranked Purdue. And they did split with Ohio State, when the Buckeyes were twice ranked. But they had to wonder if they had accomplished enough for selection in the objective eyes of the committee. There were a lot of ifs that could have aided IU along the way, close-call losses not only to Iowa in the tournament, but the second time around to Purdue.

As the team watched the bracket announcement and three of the four regions filled up with teams with no mention of Indiana, Phinisee said there was some tension.

“We were super nervous,” Phinisee said. “We were super anxious.”

IU has little prep time for Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference. The winner then has a long flight to Portland, Oregon to face 25-7 St. Mary’s of the Western Athletic Conference.

The last time Indiana was invited into a post-season play was the 2018-19 season under Archie Miller and the event was the NIT. The Hoosiers finished 19-16.

The last time Indiana was invited to play in the NCAAs was the 2015-16 season under Tom Crean. IU finished 27-8 and reached the Sweet Sixteen.

In the post-game locker room after the disappointing loss to Iowa Saturday, Jackson-Davis said someone said aloud that no opponent would welcome facing IU’s defense right now.

Woodson thinks IU is playing its best basketball of the year. Jackson-Davis said he feels as if the Hoosiers have a lot of basketball left in them. But they really might not. They must keep winning to keep playing.

It has been quite some time since the Hoosiers have been represented in the NCAAs and Woodson, who many years ago was a star for his alma mater, recognizes it is a special occasion for players who never had the chance before.

“This is what you play for,” Woodson said. “This is what you come to school for, if you’re playing basketball. That’s what it’s all about. Now they get an opportunity come Tuesday.”

And maybe again. All the Hoosiers have to do is keep winning.