Indiana opens NCAA Tournament play this Friday night during a 9:55 p.m. ET tip against Kent State. This will be the opening game in a region of the bracket that has Indiana connections all over it, as Luke described yesterday.
Not only does it have the potential to be a gauntlet of Bad Blood for the Hoosiers, but this first game has become the trendy upset pick for a lot of college basketball’s most prominent “experts.”
With its best seed in a decade and a week to prepare for its first game, Indiana hopes to prove its critics wrong and advance past the first weekend for the first time since 2016. Here’s a look at what it’ll take for the Hoosiers to set up the Kelvin Sampson match that the committee so badly wanted:
One of the things that makes the Golden Flashes a popular upset pick is the experience that they have in the backcourt, starting a pair of seniors in Sincere Carry and Malique Jacobs. The two are Kent State’s leading scorers, averaging 17.6 and 13.0 points per game, respectively.
Fellow senior Miryne Thomas is the third leading scorer and the best 3-point shooter in Kent State’s starting lineup, hitting 35.3% of his 190 attempts on the year. He’s also listed at 6’8” which means Indiana will need to guard him with some length rather than its usual perimeter defenders.
Overall though, Kent State doesn’t take a ton of 3-pointers, nor are they an outstanding 3-point shooting team at 33.6% on the season. With an offense that comes in as the 111th most efficient in Kenpom, the Golden Flashes are definitely a defense-first group.
Behind its defense, Kent State has been able to play some tight games against big opponents, falling to Houston by a score of 49-44 and Gonzaga 73-66. Outside of those two games, the Golden Flashes didn’t play any high-major opponents.
Experience aside, I actually think this is a pretty favorable matchup for Indiana and don’t really see the upset potential that so many others have commented on. For one thing, Kent State is small. None of the players in their rotation are taller than 6’9”, and not all of these forwards play like post players.
Drew Timme had 29 points against them in their matchup, and I expect a similarly dominant performance from Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is simply bigger and more talented than anyone on Kent State’s roster. Jackson-Davis is also a better rim-protector than Timme, which will pose problems for an offense that gets 51% of its points from 2-point range.
The one issue could be Indiana’s lack of experience and depth in the back court, but that will be a problem against every team, and I don’t think this squad from the MAC is going to be the most likely to exploit it. With the height and talent mismatch between squads on paper, the guards will probably have their simplest assignment of the year: get the ball inside.
Should Indiana win its first game, it will meet the winner of Miami and Drake, who play at 7:25 p.m. ET Friday. For reference, both Kenpom and Bart Torvik (who don’t get paid for retweeting bad takes about Indiana) favor the Hoosiers in that first round game.
According to the computers, the matchup between Miami and Drake will be closer than the Indiana-Kent State game, but the Hurricanes are given the slight edge. Since there’s no way to really know who Indiana could get, let’s take a quick look at each team.
With a backcourt of Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack, Miami certainly appears to be the worse matchup on paper for Indiana. They also play a lot of guys who can shoot (which, uh), with each of their top five most-used players shooting over 33% from 3-point range.
On the other hand, Miami is pretty small and probably wouldn’t not have much of an answer for Trayce and Race inside. Still, Indiana would either need to force Miami to take more 2-pointers or find some 3-point shooting itself if the game turns into a shootout.
Drake is similar to Miami in that it shoots the three pretty well, but doesn’t always rely on it for a ton of offense. The Bulldogs have a true center in Darnell Brodie, who averages 8.8 points a game on offense, plus a block and five defensive rebounds per game.
Drake also has some experienced guards in Roman Penn and D.J. Wilkins, two seniors who average 12.6 and 8.2 points per game, respectively. Wilkins is one of Drake’s top shooting threats, alongside sophomore Tucker DeVries, who also shoots 37.6% on the year.
Just given the talent level of the backcourt in Miami, it’d probably be wise for the Hoosiers to be pulling for the upset in that first round matchup. Either way though, Indiana would be facing a team that can shoot well from multiple positions and would certainly stretch the defense.
If Indiana can take care of business Friday against Kent State, it’s going to take another disciplined, sustained defensive effort in the second round to set up the potential match up with Kelvin Sampson.
Other Games to Watch
Looking ahead to the next weekend, Indiana fans should obviously be monitoring the other first and second round matchups around it in the bracket that first weekend. Barring another UMBC scenario, the real game to watch for Indiana fans would be the Iowa-Auburn matchup Thursday night.
Simply put, I want nothing to do with a third matchup between Indiana and Iowa this season. It hasn’t always traveled away from Iowa City, but a team that can shoot as well as the Hawkeyes will always be a threat to make a tournament run so long as the shots are falling.
Though they’re ranked higher on paper, I think Auburn is the better matchup for Indiana in the perhaps unlikely scenario that the Houston Cougars don’t advance to the Sweet Sixteen. We’ll cover the second weekend in more depth if Indiana gets there, but it’s something to keep an eye on as games get started this week.