BLOOMINGTON – Did you think winning a national championship is easy?
Do you believe Indiana's No. 1 seed means a drama-free path to Atlanta and the Final Four?
Get real. IU's struggle in its 58-52 win over ninth-seed Temple -- which generated a lot of Cream and Crimson fan grumbling -- reflected the fierceness of the competition in a season of national parity. The margin for victory is small. The price to achieve it is high.
So what does that mean for Thursday's East Region Sweet 16 game with fourth-seed Syracuse in Washington, D.C.?
“I was hoping it got easier the further along you got in the tournament,” IU associate head coach Tim Buckley said with a laugh. “I don't think that's the case.”
Indiana (29-6) is seeking its first Elite Eight appearance since 2002, when it reached the national championship game. It will be challenged by a 28-9 Syracuse team that started the season 10-0 with a No. 3 national ranking.
“Preparation is a key to what we do, how we execute and what our focus is,” Buckley said. “We have to continue to do that.”
The Hoosiers' focus was fierce in the final few minutes against Temple, when they ended the game on a 10-0 run. Their near flawless execution was similar to their performance in the final minute of the regular season ending Michigan victory.
“To finish it out the way we did shows all that hard work you put into an entire season -- and for some of these guys the four years they've been here to get to this point,” Buckley said.
“We would prefer to play that way for 40 minutes, but we're thankful we've been able to do it in clutch situations. It starts with our defense.When our defense is focused, we feel like we'll execute offensively.
“Coach (Tom Crean) is going to call the right plays, to call the right guy's number to either get the shot or get everybody else in position to make the shot.”
Numbers don't lie
Syracuse comes in having won five of its last six games, with the only loss coming to overall No. 1 seed Louisville in the Big East championship game, when the Cardinals rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit.
The Orangemen are led by 6-8 forward C.J. Fair, who averages 14.5 points and 6.9 rebounds. Brandon Triche, a 6-4 guard, averages 13.8 points, 3.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds. Guard Michael Carter-Williams, who is 6-6, averages 11.8 points, 7.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds. He also has a team-leading 100 steals. James Southerland, a 6-8 forward, averages 13.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Syracuse has four players with at least 25 blocks, led by 6-9 forward Rakeem Christmas' 70. Six players also average at least 3.8 rebounds.
For comparison, Cody Zeller leads Indiana with 44 blocks. Victor Oladipo leads with 75 steals.
The Orangemen are perhaps the biggest team IU has played this season. They have 10 players on the roster at least 6-6.
In Thursday's other Sweet 16 game, second-seed Miami (29-6) faces third-seed Marquette (25-8). The winners will meet on Saturday.
IU guards Maurice Creek and Oladipo, along with assistant coach Kenny Johnson, are going home. All are from the Washington, D.C., area.
There's one drawback -- a big demand for tickets.
“I know a lot of my family are going to use all of my tickets,” Creek said, “but I just want to get prepared for the game and play my best basketball.”
The regional games are set for the Verizon Center. Oladipo played there twice during his high school days at DeMatha.
“It was a great experience to play there,” he said. “I can't wait to go home and play in front of my family and friends. But the main thing is to play with these guys and show the world what we're capable of.”
The Hoosiers' heart-in-the-throat comeback victory over Temple was great, forward Derek Elston said, but does not mean they are a team of destiny.
“You're looking at a team that is not going to give up.” he said. “We'll fight as far as we get to go. We'll always be in the fight, always be in the battle. That's all anybody can ask.
“We're happy we get to move on. We're happy to dive into the film (of Syracuse). We're happy to survive.”
Survival wasn't assured until the closing seconds against Temple. How nerve wracking was it to watch from the bench?
“It was absolutely nerve wracking,” Elston said, “but we have confidence in this team. We know Coach Crean had the right guys on the court, guys who will bear down and fight through. That's what they did.”
Sweet 16 carryover
The Hoosiers insist last year's Sweet 16 experience will produce Thursday benefits. The 102-90 loss to eventual national champ Kentucky reinforced the necessity of improved defense.
“We made it last year and we know what to expect,” guard Remy Abell said. “We'll carry it over from last year.
“We know what our ultimate goal is. We're going to enjoy this, but we know we still have business to take care of.”
More and more often Abell is a key part of that business. He's never started a game in his two college seasons, but he's become a major off-the-bench contributor. His defense on previously unstoppable Temple guard Khalif Wyatt was crucial in Sunday's victory.
“I told Coach I wanted to guard him,” Abell said. “Let me guard him. I want that challenge. He's a great player. I know I can be at that level.”
Oladipo, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, gets that challenge. But when he couldn't stop Wyatt in the first half, Crean tried Will Sheehey, Christian Watford and, as part of a trap, Zeller. Abell did as good a job as anyone, which is why Abell got the second-half start over the banged up Jordan Hulls rather than Sheehey, the Big Ten's top sixth man.
“I thought the guy that stemmed the tide in first half, which is why he got the start in the second half,” Crean said, “was Remy Abell. That was the key.”
In the end, Oladipo did the best job defending Wyatt.
“Vic did a great job on Wyatt,” Abell said. “He's the defensive player of the year. But I wanted that opportunity. I wanted to make him take tough shots.”
It worked -- sort of. Wyatt had 20 points at halftime and finished with 31.