BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Indiana claims it has the best basketball in the Midwest.
Five schools will get a chance to prove it over the next two weeks in the NCAA Tournament. That’s half of the 10 schools in Indiana with Division I men’s basketball teams.
Automatic qualifiers Notre Dame and Valparaiso will be joined by at-large teams Butler, Indiana and Purdue in the Midwest Region, a single-region-placement oddity that means only one home-state school has a shot at reaching the Final Four in Indianapolis next month.
“Indiana state championship, right?” Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said.
A year after Indiana was shut out of the 68-team tournament field, the Hoosiers (20-13) were the biggest surprise in the group.
Indiana’s hopes were thought to be dangling on the bubble after a late-season collapse. Bracketologists believed the Hoosiers’ chances evaporated when Wyoming surprised San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tourney title game. But with a No. 10 seed, the Hoosiers were never really in danger.
If that doesn’t quiet the critics who have been calling for coach Tom Crean’s ouster, a win over No. 7 seed Wichita State on Friday in Omaha, Nebraska, should. Winning the Indiana bracket would make it a foregone conclusion.
“I didn’t cry, actually, which is rare. It happened so fast, I was stunned,” Crean said, explaining his thoughts as his players celebrated. “I’d be lying if I said I saw a 10th-seed coming. I’m honored to have it. But it came up so fast. It was like there’s Kansas and then there’s Wichita State and, I said ‘Wow, Kansas could play Wichita State in the second round,’ and then it was ‘Woe, there’s Indiana.’ It’s a great feeling.”
The joy was evident on all of the campuses.
Notre Dame (29-5), the ACC tourney champions, and Butler (22-10) are both heading to Pittsburgh on Thursday. The third-seeded Fighting Irish will play No. 14 Northeastern. Sixth-seeded Butler plays No. 11 Texas.
The Irish have won only two tourney games since reaching the regional semifinals in 2013, and if both higher seeds win, Notre Dame and Butler would square off Saturday. While neither team is looking ahead, it’s hard to ignore the local banter.
“One of our team goals this year was to beat all the Indiana schools, and we didn’t do that,” Bulldogs swingman Kellen Dunham said. “Now we might get another chance.”
Butler’s return to the tourney has been a surprise.
After a losing season, the Bulldogs were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East — and that was before Holtmann stepped in for the ailing Brandon Miller just before practice began last fall. When Miller didn’t return in January, Holtmann was named the permanent coach.
Purdue (21-12), which finished last in the Big Ten in 2013-14, wasn’t supposed to be here, either. Coach Matt Painter revamped the roster, found the grittiness that typified his mentor’s gritty style and turned things around. Now they’ll face eighth-seeded Cincinnati in Louisville on Thursday.
If the Boilermakers survive that one, they could be in line to end Kentucky’s quest for the first perfect season since the 1975-76 Hoosiers.
“You know they could be next, but you have to focus on Cincinnati, because that is the first team,” Purdue center and Indiana native A.J. Hammons said. “You focus on the first game. You worry about the next game later.”
Valparaiso (28-5), the No. 13 seed, opens play Friday against No. 4 Maryland on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
The Crusaders won both the Horizon League regular-season and tournament titles, giving the school its second NCAA berth in three years. But they have lost six straight tourney games since Bryce Drew led Valparaiso to its only Sweet 16 appearance in 1998, and Drew, now the coach, is hoping the least experienced team in his league can pull off another stunner this week.
If things work out, it could be an all-Indiana regional round.
“We do try to get as many teams as close to their natural region as possible,” NCAA selection committee chairman Scott Barnes said. “It’s quite a big jigsaw puzzle. That worked out well this year in that case.”
Those who grew up playing high school and college basketball around the state, like Drew, love the concept.
And those who were imported from neighboring states are eager to see how they do, too.
“Almost half of the bracket is from Indiana, so I’d say there’s a good chance one of those teams sneaks through,” Valparaiso forward Alec Peters said. “Hopefully, it’s us.”