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What could have been: envisioning IU’s basketball teams in their NCAA Tournaments

Indiana’s men’s and women’s basketball teams were both on their way to the NCAA Tournament. The men’s team was trying to sneak in as a 10 or 11 seed, while the women’s team was in the hunt for a 4 seed and a chance to host the first two rounds.

Then, all of sudden, neither made the tournament. No one made the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

Every team projected to make the tournament could formulate a “team of destiny” plan that projects themselves making a long run in March. Teams like Wisconsin, who won its last eight games to earn a share of the Big Ten regular season championship, or Michigan State, who also earned a share of the Big Ten title and was arguably playing its best basketball of the season.

For the first time since 1987, the IU men’s team won its last game of the season. No, it wasn’t a national championship, but you could talk Indiana fans into believing it was a momentous win, preparing them for an upset over Penn State in the next round of the Big Ten Tournament. The women’s team lost to Maryland, but Ali Patberg scored 20 or more points in five straight before being held to 16 against Maryland.

It could be painful, it could be sad, but it could also provide some closure for Indiana fans, so it’s time to play the “what if” game for both the men’s and the women’s teams.

Men’s Basketball

After a win over Nebraska on Wednesday of the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana fans were starting to believe a run was ahead of the Hoosiers with a favorable draw in the seeding. Next up was Penn State, a team Indiana dominated at home when the Nittany Lions were a top-10 team in the country.

Indiana played Penn State and Iowa similarly in the two home games. Both Penn State and Iowa have an ultra-talented forward: Lamar Stevens and Luka Garza, respectively. Indiana decided to let those players score their 20-30 points but limit the role players around them.

Garza finished with 38 points, but Iowa only had one other player in double figures. The rest of the team scored just 39 points.

Stevens scored 29 points, but the rest of the team scored just 31, led by Myles Dread with 10. No one else cracked double figures.

That’s all the evidence I need to say Indiana was on its way to another win over a Penn State team that lost five of six coming into the tournament. Indiana looked like the better team in Bloomington and the second half against Nebraska seemed like a momentum booster for the Hoosiers.

Stevens goes for 25 points, but Indiana holds the Nittany Lions under 30 percent from three, and Jackson-Davis has a good day inside, with 15 points and eight rebounds.

Result: No. 11 Indiana 72, No. 6 Penn State 66

Based on Indiana’s previous Big Ten Tournament performances, IU would likely lose on Friday to Maryland. This team has had trouble building momentum over the course of several games all season. The last three-game win streak for Indiana was in December, with wins over UConn, Nebraska and Notre Dame, none of which are going to be in the NCAA Tournament.

Trayce Jackson-Davis tries to go up and over Jalen Smith in IU’s second meeting with Maryland on January 26 at Assembly Hall. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Jalen Smith and Anthony Cowan combine for 50 points and Indiana has no answer for a hot 3-point shooting Maryland team in the quarterfinals.

Result: No. 3 Maryland 78, No. 11 Indiana 64

Speaking of the Big Dance, Indiana was projected as an 11 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest episode of Sesame Street. Lunardi had Indiana playing at 12:40 p.m. on Thursday against 6-seeded BYU. Because I’m not a bracketologist and don’t really want to even try, we will go off of his projections for this exercise.

BYU had one of its best seasons in program history. The Cougars finished the conference tournament ranked 18th in the AP poll with a 24-8 record. They had a 14-1 record at home, with a combined 10-7 record on the road and neutral sites. Their best win was at home against Gonzaga, but their best win away from home was either at Utah State or in Hawaii against UCLA. It’s possible they are a “just happy to be here” team that Indiana can catch off guard.

BYU’s strengths are on offense, specifically behind the 3-point line. The Cougars shot 42 percent in the regular season from beyond the arc, 44.5 percent in conference play. But it is still possible to beat BYU when they’re shooting well from three, because they don’t have a big inside presence. San Francisco beat BYU, 83-82, when BYU was 15-of-27 from long range. The Dons knocked down 13 threes of their own.

So simply put, the Hoosiers can beat BYU if they hit some timely threes and rely on their size down low. That’s why Indiana knocks off BYU in the first round, with Trayce Jackson-Davis dominating the points in the paint, scoring 19 points and adding 11 rebounds, and Devonte Green hitting timely threes.

No. 11 Indiana 77, No. 6 BYU 71

The Twitter account, 2020 NCAA Tournament Simulation, tweeted that Indiana knocked off BYU in their simulation, 81-79, in overtime, led by Green’s 23 points.

Next up, the No. 3 seed Seton Hall Pirates. Obviously, it all revolves around First Team All-American Myles Powell. The Pirates finished 21-9 and earned a share of the regular season Big East title. Powell averaged 21 points per game.

Seton Hall is much more than just Powell. In a few games that he missed due to injury, guys like Sandro Mamukelashvili and Quincy McKnight stepped up. Both ended up averaging 11.9 points per game.

Indiana would likely attack Seton Hall the same way it did Iowa and Penn State; let Powell run free (to an extent) and limit the role players. Indiana would quickly find out Powell is a different type of playmaker. He would get hot quickly and Indiana would be in trouble. Indiana has not played well when behind early, and that would be the case in this one.

The game plan all year against ball screens has been to hedge with the big man. That backfires in this game, with Powell and Mamukelashvili running a pretty two-man game.

Even though the simulation had Indiana winning and advancing to the Sweet 16, I don’t see it against a team as talented as Seton Hall. Indiana’s season ends on the first Saturday of the NCAA Tournament.

Result: No. 3 Seton Hall 81, No. 11 Indiana 69

Women’s Basketball

The women’s team didn’t have any question marks from the Big Ten Tournament. IU knocked off Rutgers on Friday but were dominated by Maryland on Saturday for the third time this season.

Ali Patberg has caught fire of late. She averaged over 17 points per game in Big Ten play, along with Grace Berger, Jaelynn Penn and Mackenzie Holmes, who all averaged double figures in conference games.

According to ESPN’s women’s basketball bracketologist, Charlie Creme, Indiana was looking at a No. 5 seed, off to the Spokane region with No. 4 seed Gonzaga. Indiana would match up with Troy in the first round. Because of the positive momentum Indiana would bring into the tournament (winner of six of its last eight), Indiana would make easy work of Troy.

Patberg would have her typical day, and possibly threaten for a triple double. Brenna Wise doesn’t appear in the stat sheet too much, but the senior’s leadership helps Indiana set a tone early. Penn’s ankle is still a slight concern after tweaking it in Indy two weeks prior, so her minutes are limited. Holmes and Gulbe both score in double figures.

Result: No. 5 Indiana 78, No. 12 Troy 55

Going out west for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament isn’t new for Indiana. Last season they played in the Eugene region, winning in round one over Texas and falling to Oregon in the second round.

This year, they are a much better team and have a more evenly matched game with No. 4 Gonzaga. Indiana finished No. 20 in the AP poll, while Gonzaga checked in at No. 13. The Bulldogs finished an impressive 28-3, 17-1 in the WCC, but were stunned in the conference tournament by Portland in the semifinals. Their only other losses were at Saint Mary’s and Stanford.

Brenna Wise’s defense came alive in this year’s Big Ten Tournament game against Rutgers on March 6 in Indianapolis. (Bailey Wright/HN)

Gonzaga presents a balanced attack, with three players averaging double digit points per game and three others with at least seven. The team as a whole averages 68 a game and holds opponents to 51.9 points per game.

Indiana is no stranger to low scoring, ugly, grind-it-out ball games. Eight of Indiana’s program-record 24 wins came when scoring fewer than 70 points. Indiana held opponents to 59.4 points per game this season.

Beyond all the stats and percentages, Indiana is playing for its first Sweet 16 in school history. That means something. Gonzaga is a perennial women’s basketball powerhouse out west, but for Indiana, this was a special season. A program record in total wins, conference wins, and highest AP ranking.

Patberg and Wise refuse to let the team lose. Patberg grinds out 20 points, with 10 coming at the free-throw line. Wise takes two big charges, and they get enough from Berger and Holmes down the stretch to win a low-scoring dog fight. The emotion carries Indiana to the Sweet 16.

Result: No. 5 Indiana 61, No. 4 Gonzaga 56

This win would give Indiana its first Sweet 16 appearance in school history. It would also match them up with the No. 1 seed in the West, the Oregon Ducks. Indiana would stay on the west coast, this time in Portland, Oregon.

Indiana went toe-to-toe with Oregon in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, ultimately bowing out in the fourth quarter. That was an important lesson for Indiana on what it takes to beat a team like Oregon.

That won’t do them any good this time around though. Sabrina Ionescu is on a college-basketball retirement tour of sorts, and she’s not going to lose in the Sweet 16 just miles from Eugene. Ionescu records a triple double (I know, it’s the norm at this point) and helps Oregon pull away from a tough Hoosier team. Patberg scores 17 and Berger adds 10, but they can’t get any production underneath, and eventually the Ducks prove too much.

Result: No. 1 Oregon 81, No. 5 Indiana 65

Final reflections

These two seasons were important for different reasons. For the men, they made the tournament for the first time under Archie Miller and were able to win multiple games in the Big Ten Tournament and one in the NCAA Tournament, giving them a foundation to build on for next year. A young team that returns a lot of people for next season got valuable experience in the tournament.

The women were able to accomplish something never done before, reaching the Sweet 16. They set program records everywhere and will only lose one player to graduation.

Unfortunately, none of this actually happened. It’s fascinating to think about, which is why I’m 1,700 words in on a “what-if” story. There are arguments to be made that both teams could have been eliminated early, but what if they got hot and won a game or two? What if Devonte Green and/or Ali Patberg put their teams on their back?

We’ll never know, but it sure is fun to think about. Here’s what we do know. The men’s team returns all five starters and adds some talented freshmen, including five-star point guard Khristian Lander, who will most likely reclassify to join the 2020 class. The women’s team loses one player to graduation and adds Danielle Patterson, a transfer from Notre Dame who sat out this past season due to transfer rules.

We don’t know what would have happened if these teams got to play in March, and that’s disappointing for so many reasons. For Brenna Wise, De’Ron Davis and Devonte Green, their careers ended abruptly.

But what we do know is that both teams will be back next year, ready to take the next step they would have taken this March. Here’s to 2021.

Austin Render

I am a sophomore from Fort Wayne, Indiana majoring in Sports Media. Last year I worked with IUSTV Sports doing recap and feature packages for IU field hockey, women's basketball and baseball. I am one of the current WIUX Co-Sports Directors. I am a student broadcaster for WIUX as well as Big Ten Network Student U. You can reach me at austinrender99@gmail.com and you can follow me on Twitter @austinrender.

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