BLOOMINGTON — Tom Crean watched the television in utter amazement Sunday.
Two years ago, his Hoosiers weren’t even eligible for the NIT. Now, they’re the No. 1 seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament.
And while they won’t be taking the easy road to the Final Four, playing regional round games in their home state, the Big Ten champs might have the next best thing -- playing to a national fan base, renewed motivation to prove the doubters wrong and adding another list to their milestone list.
“Another major accomplishment,” Crean said after watching the NCAA tournament selection show. “To think of where we were 24 months ago, when we were five or six wins short of postseason eligibility to today, it’s just amazing.”
It’s the first time since 1993 — and only the third time in school history — that Indiana has gone into the tourney with a No. 1 seed.
Still, the draw won’t go over well in a Hoosier State that expected to see Indiana playing twice at Lucas Oil Stadium, not even 2 miles from where the selection committee spent the last four days trying to sort out this 68-team tourney field after one of the craziest college basketball seasons.
Indiana spent more weeks at No. 1 than any other team and won its first Big Ten outright championship since 1993 when a buzzer-beating tip from Michigan rolled off the rim in last Sunday’s conference finale.
Most Hoosiers fans figured that win clinched the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, which almost certainly would have meant playing games in Dayton, about 170 miles from campus, and Indy, about 60 miles from campus.
But three losses in six games — including Indiana’s most lopsided loss all season in Saturday’s Big Ten semifinals — changed the whole equation.
Louisville, which won the Big East tourney Saturday night, wound up No. 1 in the Midwest while Indiana was sent East.
It’s not all bad. The draw in the East looks more favorable for the Hoosiers, and they’re still going to play their second- and third-round games in Dayton anyway. Best of all, they won’t have to see Wisconsin unless both reach the championship game. The Badgers have won 12 straight over the Hoosiers (27-6).
Indiana will open the tourney against the winner of the Long Island-Brooklyn-James Madison opening-round game. If they win that, they’ll face either eighth-seeded North Carolina State or ninth-seeded Temple. And some players have pointed to the road win over North Carolina State in November 2011 as the start of Indiana’s remarkable resurgence following three straight losing seasons and an NCAA scandal that left the program in tatters.
After that, Crean could be looking at possible regional final games against his former school, Marquette, or a potential rematch with Butler, who handed Indiana its first loss of the season in December. Those games would be in Washington, not far from Victor Oladipo’s hometown and not far from a prominent basketball fan that Oladipo met when he was in high school, President Barack Obama.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t even know Indiana was in our region,” Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said. “I’ve just been looking at the four schools in our pod.”
But the Hoosiers know it will take more than an executive order to get to Atlanta.
“If we don’t win in Ohio, then there is no D.C. to worry about,” Oladipo said.
This year’s celebration was far more subdued than last year’s, which players and coaches watched on a temporary big-screen television set up inside the new addition at the football stadium. This time, they kept the party private.
Crean said he urged players to relax, be themselves and enjoy the show.
“It was kind of neat figuring out where we were going instead of watching the show and not knowing if it was an in-or-out type of thing,” sophomore center Cody Zeller said.
Now comes the hard part, getting back to work and fixing what’s gone wrong over these past few weeks.
Neither Crean nor his players would identify specifically what has gone wrong lately.
“It’s unfortunate we lost the other day, we didn’t want to do that. We’ve got to get things fixed,” Oladipo said. “We’ve got to get back to playing Indiana basketball the right way, keeping our edge and staying together.”
An extra day’s rest could actually be of more benefit to the Hoosiers than going through Indianapolis.
Certainly, it’s been a grind.
The Hoosiers were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and have spent the whole year ranked in the top five. They took shot after shot in the toughest league in the country and the winning formula against them has been to get physical and slow the pace.
This week’s new wrinkle is that they won’t know who they will play until Wednesday night.
“We’ve already started working on two teams and we’ll have looked at all four teams by tomorrow night,” Crean said.
But after spending the past five years trying to rebuild a program that owns five national championship banners, traveling to Washington instead of Indianapolis is no big deal to the Hoosiers.
“We don’t worry about it too much,” Zeller said. “There are Indiana fans all over the country.”