KRAVITZ: IU makes the NCAA Tournament, and it isn't even a close call

IU Basketball
Bob Kravitz

The bouncer at Nick's English Hut had his eyes focused on the TV above the bar.

Turned out, there was no real waiting, no real drama during the Selection Show. Indiana's name popped up quickly on the screen, and the bouncer was overjoyed. Not just because IU made the big show, ending 72 enervating hours of wondering if and how the Hoosiers would make the tournament, but, well…

“I'm working the bar Friday night,'' he said, wearing a huge smile, “and we're playing Friday.''

Let's be honest: The bracketologists got it wrong, hilariously wrong, and those of us who take our cues from the math guys got it wrong, too. IU is not only in the NCAA Tournament, it's in the Tournament by a country mile. A 10 seed? Are you kidding? No stop-over in Dayton for the play-in game? A chance to knock off a massively talented but equally undersized and under-seeded Wichita State team?

When IU's selection popped up on the screen, a cheer came up from the small crowd at Nick's (it's Spring Break, after all). I can only imagine, though, the reaction in the IU team room, where Tom Crean and his team waited and prayed a little bit and then erupted with joy. The Hoosiers didn't just make it; they made it easily. Check it out: IU is the 37th seed in the 68-team field, one slot behind Purdue and two ahead of Ohio State.

Joy. Relief. A bunch of emotions. They expected to be heading to Dayton, even practiced Sunday morning in anticipation of a play-in game. And then the “Indiana'' name flashed across the screen. A 10 seed.

“Well, I didn't cry, which is rare,'' Crean said. “It happened so fast, I was stunned. I'd be lying to say that I saw a 10 seed coming. Honored to have it. We're grateful for it.

“And it came up so fast because it's all of a sudden, it's like `There's Kansas,' and then `There's Wichita State,' and I'm saying, `Wow, Wichita State can play Kansas in the second round and – who, there's Indiana.''

Whoa. There was Indiana. And a bunch of other Indiana teams, all stuffed into the Midwest bracket. One year after no Indiana teams made the NCAA Tournament, the state restored the natural order of the universe and earned five seeds – IU, Purdue, Butler, Notre Dame and Valparaiso.

The smart money says the Irish make the deepest run in the Tournament. They have a pro in Jerian Grant, and they are coming off a marvelous run to the ACC Tournament title. Who among us doesn't want to see an all-Indiana second-round matchup between Notre Dame and Butler?

Purdue? The Boilers don't lose first-round tournament games. They just don't. And they have a terrific matchup with Cincinnati, another team that plays dogged defense and has a hard time scoring. There's only one problem on the horizon, and it's their second-round opponent (barring an apocalypse): Kentucky. The Wildcats have about six guys who match up with A.J. Hammons. I'm saying here they win their first game over UC and then become a footnote in Kentucky's run to an unbeaten season.

As for Butler, they have a very difficult first-round draw in talented but perpetually underachieving Texas. The Longhorns finished just 8-10 in conference, but we're talking about the Big 12, the best conference in college basketball. I'll take Butler, by the slimmest of margins, in the first round – they've actually been installed by Vegas as a one-point underdog -- then I have them coming home after a loss to Notre Dame.

The Hoosiers are fortunate they are not facing a team with much size – and Hanner Mosquera-Perea should be back by Friday – but Wichita State is an elite team despite their bizarrely low seventh seed. Ron Baker. Fred Van Vleet. Tekele Cotton. This is a team that reached the Final Four two years ago and was unbeaten, 35-0, until they ran into Kentucky in last year's tournament. The Hoosiers have the dreaded puncher's chance, but I don't see them spending much quality time in Omaha, not facing a team that is 63-5 in its last 68 games. This is a veteran group who has been together and done remarkable things for a very long time.

This was a long day in Bloomington, a long couple of days since the Hoosiers were sent home from Chicago Friday after losing to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament. For the last few days, bracketologists were all over the place, but residing in the same general area: IU was either in – barely – or one of the first four out of the tournament. Joe Lunardi. Jerry Palm. All of them had Indy on the edge, and by extension, those of us who don't know our RPI from our BPI from our ERA had them hanging on for dear life. Then when Wyoming turned into a bid thief and stole away an at-large bid, it was fair to wonder where IU might land.

Seriously, is there a more uncomfortable place to be than on Joe Lunardi's bubble?

Turned out it was a lot of wasted worry and negative energy. Turned out IU's body of work was good enough, more than good enough, to earn a spot.

Didn't see this coming.

Did. Not.

What else will happen that we didn't see coming? What other sorts of madness with predate the Final Four in Indianapolis? What upsets, what come-from-nowhere stories? And ultimately, can Kentucky pull off the feat last accomplished by the unbeaten, untouched 1976 Hoosiers?

The best news of all, though, is we have five teams from the great state of Indiana, five more than we had one terrible year ago.

I don't see any of them surviving through the Final Four – Notre Dame's the only one with any kind of shot – but it will be a blast watching them try.