This March, Indiana carries an even heavier weight.
The White House is watching.
President Obama, the nation’s basketballer-in-chief, has picked the Hoosiers to be NCAA champions.
“It’s nice,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said of the presidential seal of approval. “It’s really good. But I’m also concerned that someone said that he was 1-3 in his picks before. You hope he’s right on this one.”
Strapped with a No. 1 ranking almost since the season tipped off in November, the Hoosiers (27-6) will be overwhelming favorites today when they meet No. 16 seed James Madison in the first round of the East Regional.
It’s essentially a warm-up game for the the Big Ten’s regular-season champions, but Crean knows his players won’t overlook the fearless Dukes (21-14), who beat LIU Brooklyn on Wednesday night in the First Four.
“The Big Ten prepares you for anything and everything,” Crean said, “and the one thing it totally prepares you for is to never take anything lightly.”
Crean knows something about overcoming long odds. It’s been an uphill climb, but he has Indiana looking like the Indiana of old.
Five years ago, he inherited a program that had bottomed out, leveled by NCAA sanctions and disgraced by scandal under former coach Kelvin Sampson. Crean won just six games in his first season, 10 and 12 the next two. Last year, the Hoosiers returned to the NCAA field for the first time since 2007 and won two games before losing to eventual champ Kentucky.
The mission in 2013 is simple: Hang a title banner inside Assembly Hall next to the ones from 1940, 1953, 1976, 1981 and 1987.
“We’ve been through a lot and expect nothing but the best,” said junior guard Victor Oladipo, the Hoosiers’ best all-around player. “We’re going into this tournament to try and win it. Our main goal is to win the tournament, just play together and fun and play Indiana basketball.”
This year, playing “Indiana Basketball,” the Hoosiers emerged from the other side of the Big Ten’s meat-and-bone-grinding schedule with their first outright league title since 1993. Indiana may be the most balanced team in the country, one capable of playing any style. Want to run? The Hoosiers can get out and go. Slow it down? They can grind. A 3-point shootout? Fire first.
Indiana is second in the nation in free throws per game (18.9) and third in scoring, scoring margin and 3-point percentage.
The Hoosiers have no apparent weaknesses, but that won’t stop the Dukes, who notched their first NCAA tourney win since 1983 earlier this week, from looking for some flaws. James Madison’s players feel they have nothing to lose and intend to make the most of their chance to become the first No. 16 to take out a No. 1 seed.
“The pressure ain’t on us,” said senior forward Rayshawn Goins, the team’s leading scorer who sat out the first half of the LIU Brooklyn game because of a suspension. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country. We’re just going to go out and play our best basketball.”
Even then, that might not be enough to take down the Hoosiers, who have the luxury of pounding the ball inside to 7-foot center Cody Zeller if their outside shots aren’t falling — and that’s not often.
James Madison has dealt with adversity all season. They were blown out by 30 points at UCLA in their season opener and started the year 1-5. By winning the Colonial Athletic Association title last week, they earned their first trip to the NCAAs in 19 years but the celebration was muted when Goins was arrested in Harrisonburg, Va. Police said they were called to break up a party and Goins shouted obscenities at them.
While he was on the bench for the first half Wednesday night, his replacement, A.J. Davis, made a 3-pointer to open the game and scored 20 points in James Madison’s 68-55 win.
Davis said coach Matt Brady has been reminding his players to “stay within our character” and not try to do more than they’re capable.
The Dukes won’t surprise the Hoosiers, who were able to watch them play in the opening round. Indiana has done its scouting, and Oladipo has done some extra studying of the school in Harrisonburg, Va.
During Indiana’s news conference, a reporter quizzed Oladipo on James Madison trivia — everything from the school’s location to its mascot.
“They’re in the CAA,” Oladipo said confidently. “I think they’re the Dukes. They’re from Virginia, and I’m from there, so I know a little somethin’-somethin’ about James Madison.”
Oladipo was then asked what he knew about James Madison, the fourth U.S. president.
“He signed something big, like the Declaration of Independence,” Oladipo said. “I’m right, right? Emancipation Proclamation, something like that. One of those big names. I know he’s a big historic figure in U.S. history.”
Oladipo then turned the questioning around.
“Do you know what an Indiana Hoosier is?” he asked.
“Not really,” the reporter said.
The Dukes are about to find out for themselves.