The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

By: Jesse

Welcome to Midwest Sports Pulse’s first annual March Madness preview. Anyone who knows me knows that the NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event, and the first four days of the tournament are my favorite four days of the year. I am so excited that it’s finally here, and it doesn’t even matter that Indiana didn’t make it.

Okay, that stings a little.

This piece will have two parts: one being the teams that actually have a chance to win the tournament, and one being my general predictions for each region.

Let’s get started!

Part one: the teams that could win

Here, in an order that I will explain to you shortly, are the 20 teams that actually could win the NCAA tournament: Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, VCU, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Kentucky, Houston, Florida, Kansas, Gonzaga, Louisville, Oregon, Northwestern, and Washington.

Now, you may have noticed that a couple of those teams aren’t in the field, so we can eliminate Clemson and Northwestern.

So what else do the other 18 have in common?

Answer: they all finished in the Top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s (KenPom) Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

First, what does that mean? The Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (ADE) is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent. Essentially, when Texas Tech is on defense 100 times, they’ve only given up 86 points this season, which is tops in college basketball.

Here’s why that matters. Since 2002, which is the first year that KenPom’s analysis is listed on his website, every single national champion has finished the season in KenPom’s Defensive Efficiency Top 20.

There’s one exception: these statistics have recently switched to “Adjusted Defensive Efficiency” from just “Defensive Efficiency.” When it was the latter, the 2009 North Carolina championship team finished 21st in Defensive Efficiency. But with the ADE, they were 18th.

But yes: every single champion since 2002 has finished in the top 20 of KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. From Maryland to Villanova, every single one.

I learned that fact a few years ago, and since then, I have not chosen a champion in my bracket that has finished outside that top 20 (which doesn’t mean I’ve gotten it right every year…quite the contrary).

I think it’s safe to say a few more of those teams (VCU, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, Oregon, and Washington) can be eliminated as well. With the exception of Kansas, all of those teams are lower in the seeding, and the Jayhawks just haven’t been as good this season as they were advertised to be, despite starting the season at #1.

So who’s left? Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, and Gonzaga.

You might look at those teams and say to yourself, “Yeah, well no kidding. Of course one of them is going to win.” Fair point. Those are some heavy hitters. But it should speak volumes as to how important defense has always been in college basketball, and that the teams that play the best defense are rewarded. Those 12 teams should be your only options when choosing a champion. And you could probably truthfully whittle that list down to 8 or 9 if you’re really feeling generous. For example, Wisconsin, Kansas State, and Houston are very good basketball teams, but I don’t think they have enough all-around firepower to get them to the Final Four, let alone win the championship.

Noticeable omissions from the KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Top 20: Maryland (22nd), Virginia Tech (25th), Purdue (32nd), Tennessee (34th), Auburn (45th), LSU (62nd), Villanova (73rd).

The lowest team in the tournament field is Fairleigh-Dickinson, who comes in at a pretty terrible 294th (out of 353 Division I teams). They’re in the play-in game Tuesday night against Prairie View for the right to get trounced by Gonzaga on Thursday. (Update: before I hit publish, Fairleigh-Dickinson came back and defeated Prairie View, so they will be facing Gonzaga.)

Oh, and just because I can? Indiana’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency was 30th best in the nation this year, two spots ahead of Purdue. Go Hoosiers.

Part Two: Region by region breakdown

East Region

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 16: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils cuts down the net after defeating the Florida State Seminoles 73-63 in the championship game of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s start in the East with the #1 overall seed: the Duke Blue Devils.

Duke is a pretty overwhelming favorite, at least as far as the number of people picking them to win the tournament. FiveThirtyEight puts their chances at 19%, which is tops among the field, and your bracket should probably revolve around how far you’re willing to take Duke.

If you’re in a pool where you can win money, you have two options with the Blue Devils. One, since they are the favorite, you could put your money on them and maybe have to split any prize winnings with 25-50% of your pool that also picked Duke. Two, you could go against the grain and hope it pays off.

I really think Duke makes the Final Four at the very least. This is one of the most talented college basketball teams to ever take the court together, and if you’ve watched any college basketball this year, you know how freakishly athletic Zion Williamson is. He’ll probably be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft in June, but he wasn’t even the top recruit coming in to Duke last summer: that was RJ Barrett, the likely #2 overall selection in the NBA Draft.

The top part of this region isn’t that strong. The 8/9 matchup between VCU and UCF could be fun to watch, and either of those teams could give Duke some struggles, but I also doubt either of them would be able to keep it up for 40 minutes.

I would expect Duke to play and beat Virginia Tech, the 4 seed, in the Sweet 16. A trendy upset pick is Liberty (12) over Mississippi State (5), but that’s not the 12/5 upset I would be most likely to take.

The lower half of this bracket should belong to Michigan State. I think they’re the best 2 seed in the tournament, and I also think it could have been the fourth #1 seed over Gonzaga, but that’s irrelevant at this point.

Stay far away from LSU. If you haven’t been following college basketball, their head coach, Will Wade, was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing payments to recruits.

Not great.

LSU certainly has enough talent to win a game or two, but don’t be shocked if Yale (14) upsets them in the first round. They can really shoot the basketball, and they have a legitimate NBA Draft prospect in Miye Oni. I’m taking Yale over LSU solely because of the Will Wade dilemma. It just seems like there are too many distractions in that Tigers locker room right now.

The 7/10 matchup between Louisville and Minnesota is fun if you’re a college basketball fan. Minnesota’s head coach is Richard Pitino, son of disgraced (also by the FBI) former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. It could be an interesting matchup, but neither of them is going to win in the second round against the Spartans.

My Sweet 16 matchup in this part of the bracket is all Big Ten: Maryland vs. Michigan State. There are two ways this could go: Maryland is good enough to beat Michigan State (though the Spartans won the only regular season meeting 69-55), but they’re also inconsistent enough that they could lose to Belmont in the first round (if Belmont beats Temple). (That game is still being played as of publishing.)

The bottom line in the East is that this region should pretty much be chalk. Duke and Michigan State is the Elite 8 matchup you should expect to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom Izzo leads the Spartans to an upset and another Final Four, but my official pick for the East has to be Duke.

West Region

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MARCH 16: Head coach John Beilein of the Michigan Wolverines calls out instructions in the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at United Center on March 16, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Of the four regions, the West is the most up in the air, in my opinion. Any of the 1-7 seeds has a legitimate shot to make the Final Four out of this region.

Let’s start at the top with Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, or Zags, have been nothing short of outstanding this year. They finished 16th in that Adjusted Defensive Efficiency that we discussed above, but maybe more importantly, they finished first in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. The Zags scored 125.1 points per 100 possessions, which was tops in Division I by a point and a half.

They can flat out score the basketball. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 15% chance of winning the tournament, which is third best. Rui Hachimura averaged 20.1 points per game this year and shot nearly 61% from the field. Brandon Clarke 16.5 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game. Zach Norvell averaged 15.3 points per game and shot over 37% from three point range. Those three alone are great, but Josh Perkins also averaged double figures (11 ppg) and gives an additional offensive threat.

But the committee did Gonzaga no favors being the fourth 1 seed. They have a potential tough matchup in the second round with Syracuse and the famed 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim employs. For some reason, it seems like teams forget how to attack and beat the 2-3 zone in March, and if Gonzaga isn’t making its shots, they could be upset early.

The 12/5 matchup here is definitely intriguing and another trendy upset pick. Marquette (5) takes on Murray State (12) in a game with two excellent NBA Draft prospects. I wrote about Marquette and Markus Howard last month, and you can find that piece here. Since then, the Golden Eagles have struggled to say the least. Ja Morant of Murray State is currently ranked third on most NBA Mock Draft Boards, and he could carry the Racers to victory here. Marquette could also regain its earlier form and Howard could lead them to a Sweet 16 berth or beyond. It’s really up to you: for what it’s worth, I picked Marquette to win, but I have them losing in the second round to Florida State.

The Seminoles, to me, are simultaneously an underrated and appropriately-seeded team. I think the best way to put that is that they’re dangerous and a sleeper pick. Leonard Hamilton is a terrific coach (I can’t believe he’s 70 years old) and he’s built a very talented roster that gave Duke just about all it could handle twice this year. I don’t foresee them having any trouble with Vermont.

The top Sweet 16 matchup for me is Gonzaga and Florida State, which would be a rematch from last year’s Sweet 16. Florida State, then a 9 seed, beat Gonzaga, a 4 seed, by a score of 75-60. I think they’ll beat the Zags again and advance to the Elite 8 for the second straight season.

In the bottom half of the bracket, there are four teams with a real chance at getting to the Final Four. Buffalo is an absolute sleeper: the Bulls ruined my bracket on day one last year when they demolished Arizona by 21 points as a 13 seed. They’ll get to the second round and face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had the top ADE this season, and the Bulls scored almost 85 points a game. It could go either way, but I have Texas Tech advancing to the Sweet 16, also for the second straight season.

Nevada made a pretty neat Sweet 16 run last season, and they have the tools to do it again. The Wolfpack finished the season 29-4 and returned the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) and Jordan Caroline. Caleb Martin averaged nearly 20 points per game and Caroline averaged over 17.

But they won’t be back in the Sweet 16 this year. Michigan, the 2 seed, is too good. John Beilein (pictured above) will lead the Wolverines over the Wolfpack and Texas Tech.

The Elite 8 matchup here for me is Florida State and Michigan, which is also a rematch from last season. I don’t see the result being any different either, and I have Michigan advancing to the Final Four again this year. Beilein has quietly built one of the most impressive college programs in the country, and his successes should continue.

South Region

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 14: De’Andre Hunter #12 of the Virginia Cavaliers reacts after a play against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their game in the quarterfinal round of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 14, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

I know what you’re thinking, and there is absolutely NO WAY that Virginia loses to a 16 seed again. Not a chance. I would stake my entire reputation on it.

This region has some good teams, but it’s the Cavaliers and Tony Bennett’s to lose. They have a 17% chance to win it all, according to FiveThirtyEight. Virginia had the 5th best defense according to KenPom’s ADE, but this year, they also had the 2nd best offense (just behind Gonzaga). They had the 30th best offense last season, and 50th in 2017. This Virginia team is different in that they score the ball much better than the last few Tony Bennett teams, but they also play that same style of suffocating defense that Bennett has become known for.

They also have De’Andre Hunter this season, who missed last year’s tournament with a wrist injury. Between Hunter, Indianapolis native Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, the Cavaliers have a balanced offensive attack that will continue to be hard for other teams to contain.

Virginia should cruise through the top of the bracket to the Elite 8. I think Oklahoma (9) beats Ole Miss (8), but the Sooners can’t keep up with the Cavaliers.

This region has the 12/5 upset that I’m most keen on. The Oregon Ducks played their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Pac 12 Conference Tournament, and they are on a heater right now. They play Wisconsin, another Top 20 ADE team, and if the Ducks can shut down Ethan Happ in the post, it’ll be an early exit for the Badgers. Also: whatever the over/under is for this game, bet the under. This game should be first team to 50 points wins.

I also like UC Irvine to beat Kansas State in a 13/4 upset. The Anteaters are another team that’s hot coming into the tournament, and they won 30 games this season. Kansas State has a couple of good players (including Dean Wade), but there’s just something about this matchup that I don’t like. I’m taking the Anteaters over the Wildcats.

That gives Virginia either the 12 seed, Oregon, or the 13 seed, UC Irvine, in the Sweet 16. Like I said, Cavs cruise.

I think Villanova and Purdue both win their matchups in the first round to set up an interesting game in the second. Villanova has struggled at times this season, and overall, I think the 6 seed is appropriate for them. But the Wildcats are the defending champions, and they return a few players from last year’s team that bring a ton of talent and experience.

The question for Purdue will be how far Carsen Edwards can carry them. I think they’ll get past Villanova, but if Edwards has another 4-24 shooting performance like he did against Indiana, Purdue will be in heaps of trouble. They should make the Sweet 16, but their performance will be directly tied to Edwards.

I think Cincinnati is underseeded at 7. The American Athletic Conference Tournament Champions are a physical squad, and when they play Tennessee, another physical team, in the second round, don’t miss that game. It’ll be a real slobberknocker (thanks, J.R.) between the Bearcats and the Volunteers, but Tennessee should come out on top.

The Sweet 16 game between Purdue and Tennessee will be another fun one to watch. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are terrific players for the Vols, and they’ve led the team all season long. As much as I don’t want to pick the Boilers, I think Carsen Edwards will have a game that makes him a legend at Purdue and carry the Boilers into the Elite 8. I’m talking 40 points and maybe even a game-winning or game-clinching shot.

But that’s where the run ends. If it doesn’t happen before the Elite 8, Virginia’s defense will crush Edwards, and Purdue doesn’t have enough firepower on offense to overcome the Cavaliers. I like Virginia to get to their first Final Four under Tony Bennett (which seems insane to me).

Midwest Region

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 09: Coby White #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play against the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Dean Smith Center on March 09, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Midwest region should really boil down to two teams, much like the East did. And, spoiler alert, it should be the top two seeds in the region.

North Carolina is a popular pick to win the title this year, and rightfully so. The Tar Heels beat Duke twice (albeit without Zion), which is impressive. They beat Florida State. They beat Virginia Tech. They also beat Gonzaga in December and scored 103 points in that game.

This team is good, which pains me to say. It may be one of best coaching jobs of Roy Williams’ career, too.

FiveThirtyEight gives the Tar Heels a 9% chance to win it all this year. It would be their second title in three years and fourth under Roy Williams. But they have to get there first, and Virginia would be waiting for them in the Final Four.

The Tar Heels are far better than any teams they’d face up through the Sweet 16, and I have them advancing to the Elite 8 pretty easily.

Utah State could be a team to watch, though. The 8 seed won 28 games this year and shoots the three ball well, which would be the key to any upset over North Carolina. But don’t bet on it to happen.

Auburn and Kansas should win their first round matchups and face off in the second round. The Tigers are coming off the SEC Tournament as champions, while Kansas has been reeling since the middle of the season. Their run of 14 straight Big 12 regular season championships came to an end this year (which is incredibly impressive), and I don’t have any faith in the Jayhawks. Auburn relies on the three pointer as well, and if they’re on, they’ll beat Kansas easily. If they can’t hit shots, Kansas should win. But neither of them will beat the Tar Heels.

A lot of people seem to like Houston in the bottom part of this bracket, but I don’t trust the Cougars. For one, I can’t stand their coach. In case you didn’t know, Kelvin Sampson is the head coach at Houston; you know, the same Kelvin Sampson who cheated and drove Indiana’s program into the ground. I like Houston to beat Georgia State in the first round, though if you’re really feeling spicy, take the Panthers in an upset.

However, I see Houston losing to Iowa State in round two. The Cyclones should dispatch of the Buckeyes easily, as I find Ohio State supremely overrated. I like Iowa State to make the Sweet 16.

They’ll play Kentucky. The Wildcats would face either Wofford, a team that made its way into the Top 25 this season, but hasn’t fared well against stiff competition, or Seton Hall. That game could be interesting, because the Pirates beat Kentucky in December. Either way, I don’t see Kentucky losing early, as they have improved loads since the beginning of the year.

They should also take care of business against Iowa State, which sets up a rematch in the Elite 8. Kentucky beat North Carolina 80-72 earlier in the season on a neutral court in Chicago. Both teams have come a long way since the start of the year, but I think the Tar Heels will prove to be too much for the Wildcats this time around, and North Carolina will advance to the Final Four.

Final Four

So it all comes down to this. My Final Four is Duke vs. Michigan and Virginia vs. North Carolina. The three ACC teams that earned #1 seeds should also earn their spots in the Final Four.

If you’ve read this far, I really appreciate you. Just wanted you to know that.

Duke and Michigan would be a heck of a game to watch. Both teams can score the basketball at a high pace and both teams play good defense. Of course, Duke is the favorite, but in this matchup, I think the luck runs out. It only takes one game for star freshmen to show their inexperience, and when it happens, teams don’t usually survive.

As much as I like Duke and the sheer amount of talent they have on the roster, I think the Michigan Wolverines pull this one out and make it to the National Championship game for the second straight season.

On the other side, we have an ACC rematch in Virginia vs. North Carolina. The only regular season matchup between these two teams was won by the Cavaliers, and I expect the same result. As good as the North Carolina offense has been lately, Virginia’s offense has been great all year, and that defense…well, I don’t need to tell you anymore about that. The Virginia Cavaliers will go to the National Championship game.

National Championship

A Virginia/Michigan National Championship game would be awesome. Michigan’s ADE was actually better than Virginia’s this season: the Wolverines had the 2nd best defense compared to Virginia, who finished with the 5th best defense.

You know what they say: defense wins championships.

But offense helps too, and while Michigan isn’t bad (18th AOE), Virginia is that much better. After the most humiliating exit in NCAA Tournament history in 2018, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers will climb and conquer the mountain in 2019 and win their first National Championship. Michigan will again settle for runners-up, the 3rd time that’s happened since 2013.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – MARCH 09: Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers cuts down the net after winning a game against the Louisville Cardinals to a clinch a share of the ACC regular season title at John Paul Jones Arena on March 9, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Expect to see essentially this same image again on Monday, April 8th, when Virginia wins the Big Dance.

Indiana Basketball and the Season of Dreams, Nightmares, and Hope Reborn

Flashes of greatness show glimpses of what the Hoosiers could have achieved this year…and still might

By: Jesse

Juwan Morgan (13) and De’Ron Davis (20) celebrate the Hoosiers victory over Michigan State on March 2nd | Photo by: Bobby Goddin, Indy Star

Indiana Hoosiers basketball.

For some, those words are equivalent to “Christianity” or “Buddhism.” For some, Indiana basketball is religion.

A season like this one leads to a lot of lost souls.

The Hoosiers currently sit at 17-14 (8-12 Big Ten) entering the Big Ten tournament this Thursday, in a far better position today than they were when I began drafting this piece. They occupy the #9 seed and play #8 Ohio State in what could be an NCAA tournament elimination game. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Ohio State as one of his “Last Four In” in his current Bracketology projections, while Indiana is the first team in his “First Four Out” category. A win Thursday may not get the Hoosiers over the hump, but the season isn’t over yet.

But this season wasn’t supposed to be like this. This season was supposed to be far more productive. The Hoosiers were supposed to be contenders in the Big Ten, even if it was an outside shot. They were supposed to be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament.

If you’ve read any college basketball posts on here, or if you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m a graduate of Indiana University. I love me some Hoosier basketball. And I’m as disappointed in the way this season has gone – at points – as much as anyone else. I’m also impressed with what this team has achieved, in a sense. But I’m also a realist, and I want to look at the whole season to find out how we got here today.

Let’s take a look at some major events from this season.

April 30th, 2018 – Romeo Langford commits

Romeo Langford affixes the IU cap to his head, committing to the Hoosiers | Photo by: Chris Howell (Herald-Times)

Coming off a 16-win season in his first as head coach, Archie Miller secured the best high school player in Indiana and a Top 10 recruit nationwide.

Romeo Langford decided to stay home.

Langford, whose recruitment seemingly had more twists and turns than an Indiana backroad, chose to stick with the Hoosiers over Kansas and Vanderbilt. Early on, it seemed that he would join Darius Garland and play at Vanderbilt for (likely) his only season in college basketball.

But in choosing to make his decision in front of a raucous crowd at New Albany High School, Romeo signaled to all Hoosier fans – despite faking for the Vanderbilt hat – that he was committed to helping Archie kickstart the program once again.

But this season hasn’t been exactly what anyone envisioned on that night in April, least of all Langford. Averaging 16.7 points per game, good for 6th in the Big Ten and most among freshmen in the conference, Romeo has been mostly as good as advertised. But the help hasn’t really been there outside of Juwan Morgan. We’ll get to that.

Langford is projected to be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, all but guaranteeing that he’ll be a one-and-done for the Hoosiers. While that has been much debated among Hoosier circles, it’s unlikely that he’ll return for a sophomore season, even with Trayce Jackson-Davis, Armaan Franklin, and potentially Keion Brooks Jr. coming in next year. Brooks will announce his destination this coming Friday, March 15th.

Let’s get into the peaks and valleys of the 2018-19 Indiana Hoosiers.

November 14th, 2018 – A home thrashing of a ranked team

BLOOMINGTON, IN – NOVEMBER 14: Juwan Morgan #13 of the Indiana Hoosiers celebrates a basket during a college basketball game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on November 14, 2018 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

In the third game of the season, Indiana methodically took apart then-#24 Marquette, hanging 96 points on them and limiting the Golden Eagles to just 73.

It was one of those big, signature, non-conference home wins that Hoosier fans have become accustomed to year in and year out.

The Hoosier defense held Markus Howard to just 18 points that night. Romeo Langford led all scorers with 22 points, and one was one of five Hoosiers in double figures (Evan Fitzner – 16, Morgan – 13, Al Durham – 13, and Robert Phinisee – 12).

The season was off to a promising start. Until about two weeks ago, Marquette looked like a dark horse title contender. In fact, I wrote about them as such. Since then, they’ve gone 1-4. (My bad.)

But the Marquette win is one of Indiana’s many victories this season that are keeping them in the conversation, despite 14 losses and a losing record in conference play. Had the Hoosiers lost to Marquette and the rest of the season played out as it did, they wouldn’t be on the bubble.

Instead, on November 14th, the Hoosiers took a big step forward.

December 15th, 2018 – Juwan’s career high and Big Shot Rob

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – DECEMBER 15: Indiana Hoosiers guard Rob Phinisee (10) celebrates after hitting the game winning three pointer during the Crossroads Classic basketball game between the Butler Bulldogs and Indiana Hoosiers on December 15, 2018, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Indiana came into the Crossroads Classic with an 8-2 (2-0) record. The Hoosiers were coming off a huge 68-67 win over Louisville the week before, adding another Quadrant 1 win to their resume.

This game wasn’t pretty. The Hoosiers struggled mightily in the first half, and couldn’t find their momentum in the second. But they kept it close enough to give themselves a chance, much like the situation they’re in today.

Then Robert “Big Shot Rob” Phinisee happened.

To be fair, without Juwan Morgan, this game was way over. Morgan poured in a career-high 35 points and got the Hoosiers a basket seemingly every time they needed one. This should have been known as the “Juwan Morgan Game.”

But on the last possession, Archie Miller’s drawn-up play failed. Devonte Green couldn’t get it to Romeo Langford, who was option #1. He couldn’t find Morgan, who was option #2.

So Phinisee ran toward the ball, caught it with 1.7 seconds left, dribbled once to his left, and heaved a 25-footer at the buzzer.

Nothing but net.

Phinisee’s legend, which is sure to grow over the next three seasons, was born on December 15th.

The win over Butler, who was 7-2 entering the contest, looks far less impressive for the Hoosiers now. The Bulldogs finished in the basement of the Big East with a 16-15 record this season, and barring a miraculous (read: classic Butler) run through the conference tournament, their season will end without an NCAA bid.

But for Indiana? The win gave them momentum in closing out the non-conference schedule over Christmas Break, and they kept it rolling with a home victory over Illinois in the first game of the new year.

That pushed them to 12-2 (3-0 Big Ten) with a showdown looming against #2 Michigan in Ann Arbor.

January 6th, 2019 – The freefall begins

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – JANUARY 06: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers dunks over Ignas Brazdeikis #13 of the Michigan Wolverines during the first half at Crisler Arena on January 06, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 74-63. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The #21 Hoosiers never found their footing in the Crisler Center, dropping the contest to the #2 Wolverines 74-63. The picture above was a rare highlight for the Hoosiers in the game.

Morgan scored 25 points and snagged 8 rebounds, while Langford added 17 points. Nobody else reached double figures.

It was a tough loss against a very talented Michigan team (then 15-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten), but looking back, it signaled something else that nobody ever saw coming.

The beginning of a seven-game conference losing streak, and the beginning of a 13-game stretch that saw the Hoosiers post a 1-12 record.

In case you had forgotten where we are today, Indiana’s record is 17-14. Twelve of those losses came during that stretch, and it started in Michigan. It seems fitting that the losing streak would end in Michigan, too.

February 2nd, 2019 – Is that hope I feel?

EAST LANSING, MI – FEBRUARY 02: Indiana Hoosiers celebrates 79 – 75 win against Michigan State Spartans at Breslin Center on February 2, 2019 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

A dejected Hoosiers squad, in the middle of that seven-game losing streak, made the trek up to East Lansing. Not only were the Hoosiers squaring off with then-#6 Michigan State, but College Gameday was in town. The crowd was more electric than usual in the Breslin Center.

And somehow, some way: Archie Miller earned his signature win as head coach of the Hoosiers, as they knocked off the Spartans 79-75 in overtime.

Without Juwan Morgan, and without Zach McRoberts.

McRoberts missed the whole contest, while Morgan left the game after just 13 minutes with a shoulder injury and did not return.

You can count me among the Hoosier fans who thought this one was over as soon as Morgan got hurt.

But Indiana kept it close. They were down three at half. They chipped away. And thanks to a Herculean team effort and horrendous foul shooting by Michigan State (8-22 from the line!), the Hoosiers pulled off the upset and stunned the Spartan faithful in East Lansing.

Romeo Langford paced the Hoosiers with 19 points, and like the game against Marquette, five Hoosiers were in double figures: Al Durham (14), Justin Smith (13), De’Ron Davis (12, including the game-clinching free throws), and Devonte Green (11).

Indiana, though barely chugging along at 13-9 (4-7 Big Ten), was still alive.

February 19th, 2019 – Bitter loss to a hated rival

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – FEBRUARY 19: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers shoots the ball against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall on February 19, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

But the Michigan State win wasn’t the turn-around point in the season. Not even close.

In one of the ugliest basketball games I have ever watched, Indiana couldn’t defend its home court against its most hated rival, losing to Purdue 48-46 on a Matt Haarms tip-in with 3.1 seconds remaining.

It was perfect karma, of course, as the Hoosier students directed a particularly foul chant at Haarms during the game.

Indiana did everything right against Purdue, except score the basketball.

The over/under was set for the game at 137 points, a modest total. But the two teams couldn’t even break 100.

Purdue shot 31% from the field, Indiana 27%. Both teams made 20% from beyond the arc. And neither team was great from the free throw line: Purdue was 4-9, while Indiana was 11-18.

Romeo Langford again led the Hoosiers in scoring with 14. He was the only Hoosier in double figures.

Purdue’s only player in double figures? Ryan Cline (11 points).

Indiana’s defense (and his poor shot selection) kept Carsen Edwards to just 9 points on 4-24 shooting. Edwards was just awful the entire night, but the Hoosiers still couldn’t manage to beat the Boilers. Edwards took 40% of Purdue’s shots alone, missing 20 (!) of them, and still.

And still.

Week of February 25th – March 2nd, 2019 – Clawing back

BLOOMINGTON, IN – MARCH 02: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers and Devonte Green #11 of the Indiana Hoosiers congratulate near the end of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Assembly Hall on March 2, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

At points during the 1-12 stretch, it sure seemed like the Hoosiers had given up. Like they had just completely thrown in the towel on the season.

They didn’t.

The week after the loss at home to Purdue, followed by a heartbreaker in overtime in Iowa City, Indiana was back at home to host the #19 Wisconsin Badgers.

And as much as they tried to give the game away in the 2nd half and both overtimes, Indiana made one more play than Wisconsin did and upset the Badgers, winning 75-73 in double overtime.

The hero this time? Romeo, of course.

When Indiana needed a basket the most, they turned to Langford.

He delivered.

Langford crossed his defender, drove hard to the right, and laid the ball in off the glass with 0.7 seconds left to give the Hoosiers the victory.

Poor foul shooting again was a factor in the win, as the Badgers went 13-25 from the line. Star senior forward Ethan Happ scored 23 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but missed half of his 10 free throws.

The Hoosiers were alive again, but the week wasn’t over.

On Saturday, March 2nd, Indiana played host to the #6 Michigan State Spartans, who were seeking revenge.

They never found it.

The Hoosiers scored the final seven points of the game, holding Michigan State scoreless over the last 4:15, and upset the Spartans once again.

The star of the game was Justin Smith, the sophomore forward who had shown flashes of greatness, but never seemed to be able to harness the full star power that Tom Crean and Rob Judson thought he possessed when they recruited him, and the same star power that led Archie Miller to keep him on the roster when he was hired.

Smith scored 24 points, 4 rebounds, and had just a single turnover in 35 minutes of game time. He had been benched earlier in the season, and reinserted in the starting lineup later on. This game was when he proved he belonged.

In a game where Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford combined for only 16 points, Smith stepped up, and so did Devonte Green, who added 13 of his own, including shooting 3-5 from three point range.

The team effort, including a massive individual defensive effort by Rob Phinisee against Michigan State’s Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston on the game’s final possession, gave the Hoosiers the regular season sweep over the Spartans.

Today – March 11th, 2019

So, where does Indiana stand today?

Again, the record is 17-14 (8-12 Big Ten). They have six Quadrant 1 wins, which is the newest fancy way for statisticians and analysts to group teams based on performance. They’ll be the #9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and play Ohio State on Thursday at 12:30 EST. As I detailed above, that game could potentially be an elimination game for the NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State is currently in (but squarely on the bubble), and Indiana is currently out (but squarely on the bubble).

If the Hoosiers beat the Buckeyes on Thursday, a rematch – for the third time – with Michigan State awaits on Friday. This season has taught me to never say never with the Hoosiers, but beating the co-Big Ten Champions a third time in one year? That’s tough.

If Indiana can somehow beat the Spartans for a third time, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll be rewarded with an NCAA Tournament berth. Of course, if they just win the whole conference tournament, that’d make it easy on everyone involved.

What are the other scenarios?

Well, if Indiana beats Ohio State but loses to Michigan State, they are still firmly in the conversation. As much as I want to say they’ve done enough at that point to get in, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do get left out of the field of 68 on Selection Sunday. They might be rewarded with a top seed in the NIT, but that’s not what the Hoosiers have been playing for this season.

On the other hand, if the Buckeyes win on Thursday, Indiana’s season is over. Again, they would likely earn an invitation to the NIT, but the NCAA Tournament would be entirely out of reach. There’s no scenario where the Hoosiers get into the field with a loss on Thursday; I just can’t see it happening.

If nothing else, the Hoosiers have at least taken a few years off of all of our lives this season. It could be all over on Thursday, and the stress of Indiana basketball could all melt away until next year.

Or, it could just be getting started.

Don’t sleep on Marquette

Should the Golden Eagles be your March Madness dark horse pick to win it all?

By: Jesse

Greg Elliott (5) and Markus Howard converse during Marquette’s 90-86 win over Creighton last season | Photo by: Steven Branscombe, USA Today

Coming from the guy who wrote that Duke would be unstoppable exactly four days before Zion Williamson blew through his shoe (and almost his knee) and the Blue Devils were demolished at home by their rivals…hear me out.

The 11th-ranked Marquette Golden Eagles (22-4, 11-2 Big East) should be on your radar when it comes time to fill out your March Madness bracket this year.

All of the hype this year has been about Duke (and rightfully so), but perhaps this is the year where none of the perennial contenders (Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas) actually seal the deal and cut down the nets. Maybe this is the year where the hype and pressure is so high that these teams look right past their 2nd round opponent toward the Sweet 16, Elite 8, and Final Four and trip up, ending the journey just as soon as it started.

Who would be there to pick up that mantle? Marquette would gladly take that, thank you very much.

The Golden Eagles have somehow flown under the radar with a 22-4 record, and I think that’s mostly due to the blue bloods being so good this year. They are currently alone in first place in the Big East, leading Villanova by a half game as of this posting, and the Wildcats seem to be trending the wrong way. Those two will meet in Philadelphia this coming Wednesday, and that game will likely decide the Big East regular season champion.

If you look at Marquette’s schedule, they don’t have any bad losses. The one you might be able to make a case for is the loss against Indiana (13-13) in November, but here’s a counterargument: it was the third game of the season, the Hoosiers started the season 12-2 (before dropping seven straight), and the game was in Bloomington. As a graduate of Indiana, I’m all too familiar with the early season home matchup against a ranked team. The Hoosiers almost always show up and show out for those games, and they beat Marquette handily while holding Markus Howard to 18 points. I don’t count that as a bad loss.

The other three losses? A neutral site loss to the then-second-ranked Kansas Jayhawks in the preseason NIT, and two losses to St. John’s, who currently sit with a 19-8 record overall and in third place in the Big East.

What about good wins? They rebounded from the Kansas loss to beat Louisville in the preseason NIT 3rd-place matchup in overtime. They defeated the then-12th-ranked Kansas State Wildcats in a game in which Markus Howard dropped 45 points. A week later, they beat another team ranked #12: in-state rival Wisconsin. The Golden Eagles dropped 103 points on a very good Buffalo team in December that, you may remember, knocked out Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season (and by the way, that was another Markus Howard 45 point game). And, just 13 days ago, they knocked off Villanova by one point at home.

While the Big East may not necessarily be the death trap that it’s been in recent years, Marquette is taking care of business in conference, and that’s what good teams do. CBS Sports has Marquette with the 39th toughest schedule this year, which isn’t great, but isn’t bad, and they also have Marquette’s RPI rank at 14. Essentially what that says is that the Golden Eagles are a good team playing decent competition, and they’re winning the games they should be winning.

Markus Howard (0) dribbles against Georgetown defender James Akinjo (3) during the first half of a game on January 15, 2019 in Washington | Photo: Associated Press

Okay, so what else does Marquette having going for it?

Let’s not forget about National Player of the Year candidate Markus Howard, who has been referenced a few times already. Howard is averaging 25.7 points per game to go along with 4 assists per game. To put that into perspective, he’s currently the 4th-highest scorer in the nation, trailing guys from Chris Clemons of Campbell, who is one of the all-time leading scorers in NCAA history, Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy, and Justin Wright-Foreman of Hofstra. For further perspective, Marquette great Dwyane Wade (you may have heard of him) averaged a measly 21.5 points per game when he led Marquette to the Final Four in 2003, its first trip there since winning the title in 1977. Howard also has eight 30+ point games this season, including a career-high 53 against Creighton.

So, uh, he’s good. And he very well could carry a Marquette team through the tournament in a Kemba Walker-esque style. But he’s not the only threat the Golden Eagles have.

The Hauser brothers are the next two high scorers. Sam, a junior, is averaging 15.1 points per game and leads the team in rebounding with 6.7 boards per contest. Sam Hauser also dropped a season-high 31 points in a January victory at Georgetown. Joey, a freshman, averages just under 10 points per game, registering at 9.8. He’s shooting 43.8% from beyond the arc, which is just a shade under the team leader – Markus Howard – who is shooting 43.9% from three point land, though we should note that Howard has made more 3-pointers (97) than Joey Hauser has attempted (80). Forwards Sacar Anim (8.2 ppg) and Theo John (6.2 ppg) round out the scoring for the Golden Eagles.

Marquette has a very good chance to win their last five games of the season and enter the Big East tournament as the #1 seed with a 27-4 overall record. From there, anything could happen, as anything is wont to do in college basketball in the month of March.

Marquette also has excellent value in the betting world, if that’s your cup of tea. Oddsshark currently has them at +3500 to win the tournament, so if you’re really feeling good about the Golden Eagles after reading this, go put $10 on them in a futures bet and see if you can’t just walk away with $350 at season’s end. You’ll definitely be rooting harder for the 8,000 student Catholic school if you put a little money on them, I can promise you that.

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, anything can happen in March, and anyone who has followed college basketball for some time understands that. But when the brackets are rolled out on St. Patrick’s Day and Marquette draws a 3 or 4 seed in a region with a team like Duke, or Kentucky, or Tennessee, or Gonzaga…don’t overlook the damage that Markus Howard and the Golden Eagles can do. If you ignore them, they might just be the team this year that makes you crumple up the bracket and toss it in the trash (probably missing your first shot and having to embarrassingly pick it up off the ground too, let’s be honest).

Watch out, college basketball fans. You’ve been warned.

Just give Duke the title already

Why even bother with the NCAA Tournament?

By: Jesse

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Before we start: I reserve the right to write about any team in college basketball, and basketball in general, because…well, I live in Indiana, and basketball is king.

Is anyone surprised by what we’ve seen so far this season? I could have written this over a year ago when Zion committed to Duke and gave them four of the top 12 recruits.

Now, to be fair, I FULLY want the NCAA Tournament to still be played. March Madness is my absolute favorite sporting event, and I treat those first four days of the tournament like the biggest holiday of the year.

That said, this team has been nothing short of special. The 23-point comeback at Louisville this week was just ridiculous. I looked at the score early in the second half, saw Duke was down by 16 at that point, and decided not to turn it on. Instead, I went to bed.

What happened?

Cam Reddish celebrates after the 23-point comeback victory at Louisville (Getty)

You can imagine my surprise.

As much as I hate to write this, the 2015 Kentucky squad was special. That roster was just unreal. But even though they started the season 38-0 (how’d that season end, by the way?), I think this Duke team has more pure talent than that UK squad, and it’s hard to argue that Duke doesn’t have the best coach in college basketball.

Yeah…that guy. By the way, it’s “Krzyzewski” (The News & Observer)

As an opposing coach, how do you game plan for Duke? Of course you have to focus on Zion Williamson, but then what about RJ Barrett, the #1 rated recruit in that class? Sure, focus on RJ. But what about Cam Reddish, the #3 recruit? Not to mention, Tre Jones, the starting point guard, was the 12th-ranked recruit.

It’s almost not fair.

I went to Indiana University for my formal education, and I love the Hoosiers. I wish I could write this story about them, and how incredible they’ve been…but that’s just not reality.

In reality, I would be absolutely shocked if Duke does not win the 2019 NCAA title. Of course, writing this in mid-February is a dangerous game to play. You could all come right back here in a month if Duke loses and shove it in my face. I can take that.

There are some excellent teams in the NCAA this year, including Virginia, Tennessee, Gonzaga, and Kentucky, just to name a few. I just don’t think I would bet against Duke in any of those matchups. They’ve already beaten Virginia twice, and they demolished Kentucky on the season’s opening night. One of Duke’s two losses came to Gonzaga in Maui, so there’s an argument to be made there, but if those two teams were to meet again, I’m just not positive that the Zags could pull it off twice in a year.

But that’s what makes March Madness so special. Anything can happen…literally anything. We used to say anything* could happen (the exception being a 16 seed upsetting a 1 seed), but UMBC erased that asterisk last year.

I would be devastated if Duke lost to a 16 seed in the opening round (assuming they finish the season strong and get a #1 seed), but I’ll never rule it out. Not anymore. I don’t trust anything in March except for the team I draw out of a hat during a school-sanctioned competition.

But let’s be real. It certainly seems that at the end of the year, the only thing we’ll see is more of this.

Duke players and Krzyzewski celebrate the 2015 National Championship after defeating Wisconsin (Getty)