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Ibrahim: The way IU can win will cause trouble for teams in March

DAYTON, Ohio — Indiana’s First Four meeting with Wyoming was an old-fashioned rock fight. The type of game IU has found itself in throughout the 2021-22 season. It’s the type of game the Hoosiers can win and wear down their opponent in the process.

Beating Wyoming 66-58 allows Indiana to enter the round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament. March Madness is a stage the Hoosiers had not seen in over six years and after playing through some early postseason jitters, they played a game they knew they could win.

In March, these games slow down, making any semblance of rhythm on offense difficult to find. This allows a team like Indiana to lead with its defense, where it statistically had the best in the Big Ten (opponents shooting just 39 percent).

IU made things especially difficult for Wyoming’s Hunter Maldonado, the team’s leading scorer. Maldonado was forced into 10 turnovers, the Cowboys finished with 19. In March, you have to find a way to take away the other team’s best player and Indiana did just that.

It wasn’t pretty to watch, but Indiana doesn’t win pretty; They win gritty.

“I thought our defense was really the key when we were struggling offensively to make shots,” Mike Woodson said. “We just kept grinding.”

And keep grinding they did. Even when IU stalls offensively, its ability to string multiple stops together gives the offense countless opportunities to eventually score. The most recent example is a 17-point second half comeback against Michigan just a week ago.

IU and Wyoming pounded the ball inside resulting in most opportunities being at the rim. Seventy-two of the 124 points scored came in the paint.

A war in the paint is one IU is willing to fight. When you have one of the more dominant big men in the country, it can be a recipe for success. When Trayce Jackson-Davis is able to give you an efficient 29 points and nine rebounds, you have a chance to win.

This tournament is uncharted territory for all IU’s players. But one player made it his goal to get Indiana basketball back to March Madness.

Jackson-Davis has never been more motivated, IU fans should expect his level of play to continue to elevate throughout the team’s run. In his first game on the biggest stage of his career, he dominated and detailed his feelings on the experience afterwards.

“I’ve always dreamed about playing in this tournament,” Jackson-Davis said. “Being able to live out that dream and just performing at the highest level, I’m truly grateful.”

Any team crossing paths with Indiana will have a hungry Jackson-Davis to deal with.

In addition to matchup issues with Jackson-Davis, IU always has the threat of a wild card off the bench. Jordan Geronimo was the perfect complement to Jackson-Davis on Tuesday night.

Geronimo’s 15-point, seven-rebound performance was the most impactful in his IU career. What makes players like himself, Parker Stewart, Miller Kopp and Tamar Bates wild cards is you never know when they’re going to explode.

Indiana will need at least one of its wild cards to perform in order to make a deep run. Having the threat of unexpected scoring can go a long way in helping IU with more balanced efforts to compliment its staunch defense.

Even as a 12 seed, I believe Indiana has the recipe to make a run and bust a few brackets. Next up is the fifth-seeded Saint Mary’s Gaels.

IU will continue to make these games look ugly, at least for its opponent. Starting with Saint Mary’s on Thursday, IU will look to slow the pace and win the battle in the paint.

The Hoosiers have a dominant post player who can take the game over in the half court, a top defense in the country that can shut down an opposing team’s best player and a slew of x-factors coming into every game. All of this and the belief instilled in these players by Mike Woodson are why Indiana is a threat.

One could say that over the past five games, Indiana is playing its best ball of the season and I believe that will continue.

I’m taking IU to advance past the round of 64 and upset Saint Mary’s 74-71.

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