The fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers now have a NCAA tournament win in the Tom Crean era.
They should get their second such victory at 7:10 p.m. today in Portland. Should.
Even so, the Hoosiers face a daunting obstacle to a berth in the Sweet 16 in No. 12 seed Virginia Commonwealth, who could make IU pay for repeating one of its worst habits.
The Hoosiers were in control Thursday in their “second-round” game, a 79-66 win against No. 14 seed New Mexico State. IU rode the stifling presence of freshman big man Cody Zeller, who recorded a school-record six steals in the contest (the mark surpassed Quinn Buckner’s five takeaways in the 1976 national championship game), and junior guard Jordan Hulls’ lights-out 3-point shooting (Hulls was four-of-six beyond the arc and finished with 22 total points, leading all players).
While the Hoosiers never truly let the Aggies mount a comeback, they did seem to get a little comfortable with their lead, at least early in the second half. IU began to lose its rhythm in half-court sets and stood still quite a bit on offense. That allowed New Mexico State to at least keep within minimal striking distance. Aggies leading scorer Wendell McKines became more of a factor in the second stanza, scoring 11 of his 15 points after intermission.
Sure, this ultimately proved no problem against New Mexico State. Don’t think that will be the case against VCU, one of the Cinderella stories of last year’s tournament.
VCU coach Shaka Smart deploys an extremely aggressive defense. The Rams entered the Big Dance leading the nation in steals with more than 10 per game, and in defeating fifth-seeded Wichita State on Thursday, they grabbed eight takeaways and held the Shockers to 38.7 percent from the floor. All but one VCU starter recorded at least one steal.
That very well could be a problem for an IU team that tends to struggle against organized, suffocating man defense. Talent-wise, the Hoosiers have plenty of firepower on the perimeter to escape the reach of the Rams, who have averaged only 68.4 points per game. IU’s 43.6 percentage from 3-point range ranks second in the nation, and the Hoosiers should be able to get plenty of good looks in transition as well as in half-court sets if they can establish Zeller down low.
However, if IU starts to stand still on offense, watch out. The Rams are as tremendously coached as any team in the tourney field, and they won’t back down from taking chances on defense and forcing turnovers.
It’s strength-on-strength for a trip to Atlanta, and, in the Hoosiers’ case, a possible rematch with No. 1 overall seed Kentucky. Which strength will prevail?Follow paulmbanks