BOZICH | What's at stake for Indiana basketball in NCAA Tourname - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | What's at stake for Indiana basketball in NCAA Tournament? Plenty

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Indiana has not advanced past the Sweet Sixteen since 2002. Indiana has not advanced past the Sweet Sixteen since 2002.

DES MOINES, Iowa (WDRB) -- I was searching for the best way to describe what is at stake for the Indiana basketball team Thursday night against Chattanooga. After transcribing several interviews, I could not improve on the way Max Bielfeldt analyzed it:

“What you do in the (NCAA) tournament is definitely what you remember,” Bielfeldt said.

“You ask somebody who won the national championship in 2013 and who won the Big Ten in 2013 and people will remember who won the national championship.”

Hmmm. That was an interesting season that Bielfeldt picked to make his point.

In 2013, the national champion was Louisville, which defeated Michigan, Bielfeldt’s former team, in the final game.

In the Big Ten, that would be the year that Indiana, which defeated the Wolverines not once, but twice to win the conference title.

Indiana had a better season. Michigan has better memories.

Welcome to the cold reality of college basketball. Four months of success dissolves into a harsh footnote in 40 minutes.

Fast forward to 2016. Indiana again won the Big Ten title, this time by two games over Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland. But the Hoosiers will not be guaranteed better memories unless they do something in this tournament, starting Thursday at 7:10 p.m. in their East Regional opener against Chattanooga at Wells Fargo Arena.

In today’s instant analysis world, one NCAA victory won’t even be the minimum expected of Tom Crean’s team, which won 25 of 32 games, 15 of 18 in the Big Ten. Follow-up success against either Kentucky or Stony Brook in the second round Saturday will likely be required, too.

Crean did not create the NCAA Tournament frustration that surrounds IU program. That started building during the final six seasons of the Bob Knight Era when the Hoosiers failed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen from 1995-to-2000. Mike Davis had one nice run. Kelvin Sampson drove the program into Lake Monroe.

Now, eight seasons into the job, Crean is the guy who needs to push the Hoosiers deeper in the tournament than they have traveled since 2002.

That 2002 Indiana team, coached by Davis, was a five-seed – and lost to Maryland in the national championship game.

This Indiana team is a five-seed – and the guys in Crean’s locker room understand what is expected the next three weekends.

“We’re proud of that Big Ten championship,” said Yogi Ferrell, Indiana’s senior guard. “But we want a national championship.”

“It was great getting that Big Ten title,” IU forward Collin Hartman said. “It was a big step for our program and this team now we’re ready for the next step. It was just a destination in our journey.

“We have bigger plans and ultimately the NCAA championship is our plan. I’m pretty sure the fans would love it, too.”

The loving part is indisputable. Ever fan base gets gaga about three or four or five or six NCAA wins. What some have already started to debate is how Indiana fans will react if this team does not deliver a successful tournament.

College basketball has become so March-centric that anything a team achieves before the third weekend of the month is quickly dismissed.

I don’t agree with that approach. Winning a conference title is as demanding as winning an NCAA tournament. It’s a different achievement. But equally demanding, more challenging in the way it requires teams to prove they can handle rivalries, road environments, pre-season expectations, injuries and more.

But my view is not a majority view. March overwhelms January and February.

There are reasons for the angst that percolates around the Indiana basketball program:

No national championships since 1987. Kentucky, Connecticut and Kansas, the three other blueblood programs at this site, have won a combined nine NCAA titles during that nearly three-decade gap.

No Final Four appearance since 2002. Even a few schools that pretend they care about basketball (I’m talking about Georgia Tech, Florida and Louisiana State.) have splashed into the Final Four during that empty stretch at Indiana. Butler did it twice. (Don’t bring that up around Bloomington.)

You need to win six tournament games for a national title.

Indiana has won six NCAA Tournament games total in the last decade.

“It’s just that thing, March Madness,” Bielfeldt said. “It’s huge industry, the amount of games that are on television, the amount of hype around it are one of a kind.

“I don’t think I’d be satisfied if we won one or two games. Obviously I’d be disappointed if we didn’t win any.

“I think we have the talent on this team to win games and get some momentum rolling and get a little win streak going after the loss to Michigan. I hope we can do something special and really come together.”

Listen to Bielfeldt. He played for a Michigan team that could not exceed Indiana in the Big Ten, but did exceed the Hoosiers in March. And as he understands, what happens in this tournament will fill in the remaining blanks for how this Indiana team is remembered.

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