IMPORTANT NOTE: The following article is drowning in hypotheticals and should be seen not as a prediction of what will happen but as a fun observation that makes for a great story. This is basically a big “What-If” that will likely only be relevant this week before the games start. So please stick around and enjoy if “movie scripts/storybook endings” interest you.
When the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament rolls around, the fans of the remaining 16 teams are allowed to start dreaming about the possibility of a the national championship. Of course, it’s strictly “dream-only” at the moment as these teams have only completed a third of this three-week marathon. Nevertheless they can still dream, and you can bet Hoosier Nation is daydreaming like crazy.
Despite having a tough matchup with the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, Hoosier fans are on cloud nine after a cathartic second round win over the Kentucky Wildcats. It was cathartic not only because it was the first time the rivals had played in four years, but also because that last matchup ended with Kentucky beating Indiana in the Sweet 16 en route to an eighth national championship.
The Hoosiers hope the same happens for them this postseason but standing in their way is a talented North Carolina team that will be tough to beat. More likely than not, Indiana’s unexpectedly successful season will strike midnight when the clocks in Philadelphia also strike midnight on Friday, but this Indiana team has beaten the odds so many times this season that you can never count them out.
So let’s play the “What-If” game. I’m pretty sure Hoosier Nation would find any possible scenario that ends with a sixth national championship banner being hung in Assembly Hall to be cathartic (especially after going 29 years since the last one), but the level of how cathartic it can get is so insane that one would think this was a cliché Disney sports movie. IU could potentially win the championship by defeating the three teams that in recent college basketball history have made life difficult for Hoosier Nation. So let’s have fun and take a look at what would be the ultimate “Hoosier Catharsis”:
While there hasn’t been much recent history between Indiana and North Carolina, the two titans of college basketball have met twice before in the NCAA Tournament.
The first one came in 1981, when the Hoosiers defeated the Tar Heels 63-50 in the National Championship game. The Hoosiers were led by Isiah Thomas, a guard who wore #11 and scored a game-high 23 points.
The second time came in the 1984 Sweet 16 as the underdog Hoosiers beat the top-seeded Tar Heels 72-68 in what would be Michael Jordan’s last college game. Guarding MJ was Dan Dakich, a guard who wore #11 and held the AP player of the year to just 13 points on 6 of 14 shooting.
I don’t think I need to remind anyone that this year’s Hoosiers also has a difference-maker in Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, a guard who wears #11.
But it’s the regional championship round (or Elite Eight) where things start to get interesting. The opponent of the UNC-IU winner will either be the Notre Dame Fighting Irish or the Wisconsin Badgers. Both teams faced Indiana during the season and both would work as compelling rematches.
Indiana’s 15-point comeback win over the Fighting Irish during the Crossroads Classic turned into a pivotal crossroad for the Hoosiers as ever since that comeback IU has transformed from a terrible defense to one that just allowed 0.94 points per possession to a Kentucky team that ranked second in the country in points per possession. Adding that new defensive intensity with the pre-existing offensive brilliance created a combination that was able to turn around the season and win the Big Ten regular season championship outright.
While it would be cool for Indiana to face the team that provided the game responsible for the turn around, there are two problems with it. The first problem is that this potential matchup could turn into a “revenge game” for Notre Dame; after all it was the Irish that blew a 15-point lead in that game. The second reason is that there’s a better potential matchup that could await the Hoosiers.
No Big Ten team has bullied the Hoosiers as badly and as long as the Wisconsin Badgers. While a couple of recent victories for Indiana at Assembly Hall has relieved some of the psychological hold the Badgers had over IU, there is still the fact that the Hoosiers haven’t beat Wisconsin outside of Assembly Hall since the 2006 Big Ten Tournament but even that game was in Indianapolis. That last time the Hoosiers beat the Badgers outside of the state of Indiana was the 2001 Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.
While this potential game wouldn’t be played in Wisconsin (where IU hasn’t won since 1998), it would still be a huge accomplishment for this Indiana team to reach the Final Four by beating the one team that has been a thorn in its side for so long.
If Indiana was able to make it this far it would be its first Final Four in 14 years (2002). One of the major reasons it took so long to return to the Final Four was because the best Hoosier team during that stretch lost in the Sweet 16 three years ago to the Syracuse Orange. Wouldn’t you know it that not only is Syracuse still alive in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but if both Syracuse and Indiana kept winning they would face each other in this season’s Final Four.
Unfortunately this is the least likely of the things that are needed to go right in this hypothetical. The Orange were a bubble team that was not only graciously granted a 10-seed, but lucked out when 15-seed Middle Tennessee State upset a Michigan State team that would have easily ended Syracuse’s season. Seeing Syracuse beat Gonzaga and then either Virginia or Iowa State seems fairly unrealistic given what we know at the moment.
However, if they did reach Houston it would probably be the single most cathartic win in this championship run scenario. There’s only one other game against one other team that would make a better “revenge game.”
That game would be against Duke.
If the Notre Dame game was the crossroad moment the Hoosiers turned things around, then the Duke game was the moment that forced IU into that crossroad.
How bad was the 94-74 loss on December 2nd? The 1.53 points per possession that Indiana allowed to Duke on that night are the most allowed by an NCAA basketball team in the last three seasons. I’m not just talking about the “power-five” conferences: none of the 351 teams in the NCAA allowed more points per possession in a game than Indiana did to Duke on that early December night.
Three and a half months later, that same Indiana defense allowed Kentucky to only score 0.94 points per possession. Don’t brush off Indiana’s defensive improvement as hyperbole. This drastic transformation is real and I bet Hoosier fans would love another chance at Duke with their improved defense.
A loss to Duke during the middle of the season was rock bottom. A championship win over that same Duke team would be the ultimate “revenge game.” That is the true definition of catharsis.