I haven’t believed in Indiana all season.
I didn’t believe in the Hoosiers when they plodded through the nonconference.
I didn’t believe in them when they won their first seven Big Ten games.
I didn’t believe in them when they won the regular season by two games and entered the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.
And I sure didn’t believe in them entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 seed in the East, easily the toughest region in the Tournament.
I clearly have no idea about Indiana.
As the Big Ten saw its odds-on best chance to win a national title — Michigan State — get bounced in the first round by Middle Tennessee and Big Ten tournament finalist Purdue also get knocked off in its first game, there sits Indiana.
The champions are proving that regular-season trophy is still a pretty good indicator of how good a team is. Sure, the unbalanced schedules make it tougher to gauge, but Indiana no longer has to make excuses for winning the Big Ten, not that it ever needed to do so.
By beating No. 4 Kentucky to reach the Sweet 16, Indiana is carrying the Big Ten banner, one it has been happily carrying all season while dopes like me chose to ignore it.
Not that they care.
Indiana is still playing, something only two other Big Ten teams — Maryland and Wisconsin — can say.
“We knew our ability,” senior guard Yogi Ferrell said. “We weren’t really too upset that we got a 5 seed. We won the Big Ten championship. We felt like we deserved that for our play all year, and we were just fortunate enough to be selected into the tournament. We weren’t trying to look into the seeding that much. As you’ve seen this entire tournament, anybody can beat anybody on any given night.”
Give Crean credit
It’s becoming clearer beating Indiana is no simple task.
Kentucky felt the same sting of what it believed was underseeding at No. 4, and many believed the Wildcats would be the team to come out of the East. Instead, John Calipari and his group are home.
“I think Tom deserves coach of the year,” Calipari said of Indiana coach Tom Crean. “I know he was coach of the year in the Big Ten, but what he’s done with this team, you know, again, when (James) Blackmon got hurt they thought they were finished. The way they played earlier in the year where they were still trying to figure stuff out where Thomas Bryant wasn’t playing the way he was right now, all of the sudden they’re done. You got all the crazies going nuts.
“Now all of the sudden, they’re in the Sweet 16 and they’re playing as well as anybody.”
And does anyone believe Indiana can’t beat top-seeded North Carolina in the East semifinals Friday? Calipari doesn’t.
Neither does Crean.
“Right now we have no intention of just showing up in Philadelphia, you know, being there for a few hours, you know, lose and go home,” Crean said. “We fully expect to keep going. That’s what this team has done all year.”
What makes it even more interesting for the Big Ten is the fact Indiana could play Wisconsin in the regional final. Wisconsin takes on Notre Dame after it stunned No. 2 Xavier on a buzzer beater from Bronson Koenig.
How about that for a Big Ten battle no one saw coming? Michigan State-Purdue seemed likely in the Elite Eight, but instead it could be Wisconsin and Greg Gard that get a shot at Indiana with a chance to go to the Final Four.
The same Wisconsin team that saw Bo Ryan step down in December and hand the reins to Gard, his longtime assistant. The same Wisconsin team that was 9-9 and 1-4 in conference in January.
But here are the Badgers, fresh off two straight Final Four appearances, including last season’s title game. The big names are gone, but a path to the Final Four is there.
“I’ve always had confidence in them even when we were 1-4 and 9-9,” Gard said. “And the thing that I’ve talked about, and they’re probably tired of me hearing the word process, to stick to the process and not deviate from the plan. And I saw a lot of good things when we were 1-4, that we were headed in the right direction.”
Maryland is a threat
And let’s not forget Maryland.
Maryland is in the Sweet 16, too, after beating Hawaii. It plays No. 1 overall seed Kansas on Thursday in Louisville, and the Terrapins have what many believe is the most talented team in the Big Ten.
“Are we playing our best basketball? We’re getting closer to that,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “But the key is that we’re very confident and we know how we have to play now to be successful and the guys have bought into that and especially in tournament play to be successful.”
So that’s what’s left. Michigan State and Purdue are gone. So are Iowa and Michigan. Some were expected, others not.
But one thing is clear, the Big Ten is in good shape heading into week two of the Tournament, and this time it’s easy to believe.
How the major conferences have fared in the NCAA Tournament:
ACC (7 bids): 12-1, six teams in Sweet 16
Big Ten (7): 8-4, three in Sweet 16
Big 12 (7): 6-4, three in Sweet 16
Big East (5): 5-4, one in Sweet 16
SEC (3): 3-2, none in Sweet 16
Pac 12 (7): 3-6, one in Sweet 16