It’s not madness to include Indiana in NCAA Tournament bubble discussion

You probably do not want to hear anything about a borderline .500 team under consideration for the NCAA Tournament. But it might be time to get used to it.

When members of the selection committee convene Tuesday, March 12, to debate the merits of prospective at-large entrants, Indiana will either be 17-14, having won both at Illinois and at home against Rutgers, or it will be all but finished barring an improbable conference tournament championship and NCAA bid.

If indeed the Hoosiers finish the regular season with a pair of victories, they would be firmly on the bubble, no matter how unpopular that might be.

Coach Archie Miller understands his team’s situation.

“You can keep controlling what you can control right now, which is being ready for the next one,” Miller said after Saturday’s surprising home victory over Michigan State. “But we have to win. I mean, we have to win, period.”

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It isn’t hard to find someone who will argue that no team with the sort of record Indiana has compiled to this point — or will complete even in the most optimistic scenario – belongs in the NCAAs. There is a case to be made — and I’ve made it before, or helped another to do so — that tournament worthiness should not be defined merely by the schedule a team has played. There have been mid-major programs this season, including Wofford, Buffalo and Belmont, that have demonstrated they belong in the tournament whether or not they claim their conferences’ automatic bids.

But they might all claim their conferences’ automatic bids, which would give Indiana renewed life.

There have been 15 NCAA Tournament at-large selections with at least 14 losses in the 34-year history of the expanded bracket. There have been two that lost 15 times and still made it in: Vanderbilt 2017 and Alabama 2018. Those teams have not done terribly; the Tide advanced last season by beating Virginia Tech in an 8/9 game, and Vandy fell in a competitive 8/9 game against Northwestern. A 14-loss LSU team reached the 1987 Elite Eight, and 14-loss Marquette made it to the 2011 Sweet 16.

So merely throwing Indiana into the conversation when discussing which teams have a shot at making the field should not upset anyone’s equilibrium.

Should the Hoosiers close the regular season with wins in each of their remaining games, the most they could lose would be 15 games.

It’s uncertain where two wins would put them on the Big Ten Tournament bracket or whether they would climb from their current 11th position, which would place them in the league tournament first round and needing five wins to gain the league’s tournament championship and auto bid. It seems likely they would move up a spot or two, which would grant a first-round bye. So they’d be looking at a record that could be as attractive as 20-15 or as meager as 17-15.

But some of those wins are against elite competition. They swept Michigan State, which still is in contention for the Big Ten regular-season title and stands No. 8 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. They defeated No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 19 Marquette and No. 25 Louisville at home.

The Hoosiers are 54th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and that figure almost certainly would climb if they finished the regular season with two more victories. It puts them in the neighborhood of obvious bubble teams such as Temple, Seton Hall and TCU.

“We have a unique resume,” Miller said. “Our schedule strength is off the charts. We have some big wins against really, really highly regarded teams.”

They have a lot of losses, but none to really lowly regarded teams. That’s the nature of the Big Ten, which has been the deepest league in college basketball this season. Penn State, currently 13th in the standings, defeated No. 20 Virginia Tech in a non-league home game. Nebraska, currently 12th, won at NCAA aspirant Clemson and defeated Creighton of the Big East. Indiana, as noted, beat the Big East’s leader and likely NCAA entrant Louisville.

It should be no surprise the challenges inherent in such a conference have been difficult to navigate.

This is not to excuse anyone’s struggles in doing so, particularly Indiana’s. Even with myriad injuries, the Hoosiers had the talent (Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan, particularly) to do better. They showed as much in achingly narrow losses at home to Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State and on the road against Iowa and Maryland.

The question is whether by the end of next week, they’ll have done well enough.

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