BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Do you believe Indiana’s No. 1 seed means a drama-free path to Atlanta and the Final Four?
Get real. Indiana’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.
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,” Indiana 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 Syracuse team (28-9) 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.
The Hoosiers’ focus was fierce in the final few minutes against Temple, when they ended the game on a 10-0 run.
“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.”
Syracuse comes in having won five of its past six games, with the only loss coming to overall No. 1 seed Louisville in the Big East championship game when the Cardinals trailed by 16.
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 and 3.5 assists.
Syracuse has four players with at least 25 blocks, led by 6-9 forward Rakeem Christmas’s 70. Six players also average at least 3.8 rebounds. By comparison, Cody Zeller leads Indiana with 44 blocks.
The Orangemen are perhaps the biggest team Indiana has played this season. They have 10 players on the roster at least 6-6.
But the Hoosiers are ready. “You’re looking at a team that is not going to give up.” forward Derek Elston 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. “It was absolutely nerve wracking,” Elston said, “but we have confidence in this team.”
The Hoosiers also insist last year’s Sweet 16 experience will produce Thursday benefits. The 102-90 loss to eventual national champion Kentucky reinforced the necessity of improved defense.