Remember, IU fans, when we thought we were in the wilderness from 1995-2003, when all of IU's NCAA Tournament appearances, save the incredible run to the NCAA championship game in 2002, ended on the first weekend of the tournament? The Hoosiers missed the Tournament in 2004 and 2005, and the current three year skid means that IU is now out of the action for the fifth time in the last eight years. As disappointing as that is for us as a fan base, it's worth looking at the Tournament chances, or lack thereof, of all 10 of Indiana's Division I schools:
Indiana State, Missouri Valley Conference. The Sycamores earned their first NCAA bid in a decade by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as the three seed. The Sycamores are just two years removed from a 21-loss season. ISU made strides last season with a 17-13 record, but coach Kevin McKenna's decision to leave Terre Haute for an assistant's job at Oregon hardly was a ringing endorsement for the state of the program. Still, assistant Greg Lansing was promoted to head coach, and a solid regular season led to a fantastic MVC tournament run, and the Trees are heading to the Big Dance. I would like to officially cast my vote for wearing the Larry Bird-era throwbacks that ISU wore against Purdue earlier in the season.
Butler, Horizon League. The defending NCAA runner-up appeared NIT-bound for much of the season, but the Bulldogs rallied and won the Horizon League Tournament last night, defeating Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the road. The Bulldogs now have won 9 in a row and are going to make someone very unhappy on Selection Sunday.
Notre Dame, Big East. The Fighting Irish are far removed from the lost decade of the 1990s, and Mike Brey has several tournament appearances under his belt, but from 2004-2009 ND made the NCAA Tournament only 2 of 6 seasons. ND looked to be in trouble with a 6-8 Big East record last February. Since then, the Irish have gone 31-7, and have a legitimate chance to earn their first #1 seed since 1979. The Irish are an extremely experienced team, led by transfer Ben Hansbrough and a handful of other guys who are four years removed from high school, including Purdue transfer Scott Martin, Robbie Hummel's Valparaiso High School teammate. Will I be rooting for Martin to get deeper into the tournament than the rest of the Baby Boilers? Yes, I will.
Purdue, Big Ten. It would be pretty easy to argue that the nation's two best college coaching jobs were in Indiana this season. I discussed Mike Brey above, but the job that Matt Painter has done in the wake of Hummel's second knee injury is pretty remarkable. I think my feelings about Purdue are pretty well-known here, so if even I felt a knot in my stomach when I learned of Hummel's injury on that football Saturday, I can only imagine how rough it was for Hummel's teammates, the staff, and others who don't want to burn the Purdue campus to the ground. I expected Purdue to put together a solid NCAA-worthy season, maybe fourth in the Big Ten, but did not expect what Painter and company produced. Much as Purdue fans don't want to hear it, their heavy reliance on Big Ten MVP JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore makes them vulnerable in March, but they are more than capable of reaching the Final Four, and Purdue's 2011 season is close to the best case scenario.
IN THE HUNT FOR AN AUTO BID
Ball State, MAC. Ball State, under the leadership of former Notre Dame assistant Billy Taylor, has steadily recovered from the Ronny Thompson debacle. The Cardinals went 6-24 in 2008, but finished 18-12 and 10-6 in the MAC. The Cardinals do not have anything approaching an at-large resume, so the MAC Tournament is their only hope. Ball State plays as the #4 seed on Thursday, and will play Ohio in Cleveland. The MAC is a 12-team league with the top four seeds having byes, and so Ball State will need to win three games to become relevant on Selection Sunday.
A LLOYD CHRISTMAS CHANCE:
Indiana, Big Ten. Much more, paintfully more about these guys later. A season that was beginning to look respectable in the middle of the Big Ten season has ended on an eight game losing streak. IU's home loss to Penn State began the Big Ten season on a sour note, and so the Hoosiers can provide some measure of revenge and win their first Big Ten Tournament game since 2006. Penn State is tough, and no matter what, at least we never will have to see Talor Battle again after tomorrow night.
ALL BUT OFFICIALLY DONE:
IUPUI, Summit League. The Jaguars have been a model of consistency under Ron Hunter. Since their lone NCAA Tournament appearance in 2003, the Jags have never dipped below .500 in the conference, but they haven't been able to win their tournament in the Summit, which is a classic one-bid league. One of these days.
IPFW, Summit League. I thought Dane Fife was nuts for taking this job, but he has done really well in Fort Wayne, and the Mastodons have improved every year under his leadership. IPFW posted a winning conference record for the first time, but the 11-7 Mastodons lost to South Dakota State in the first round of their conference tournament.
Evansville, Missouri Valley Conference. The Aces began the season strong, upsetting Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse early in the season, and Marty Simmons's team finished a solid 9-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference before losing in the first round of the tournament to Indiana State, a team that the Aces defeated twice in the regular season.
Valparaiso, Horizon League. The Crusaders had a solid season in the top-heavy Horizon League. Valpo finished 12-6 in conference, and defeated conference leaders Butler, Cleveland State, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee once each, but lost to UWM in the third round of the Horizon Tournament.
Well, there it is. Hopefully, at this time next year, IU will be back in the conversation. For now, any sentimental favorites among the four (maybe five) teams that the Hoosier State will be sending to the Tournament?