DES MOINES, Iowa
When this NCAA Tournament began and Kentucky was placed in the bracket as a fourth seed, many compared it to two seasons ago, when the Wildcats were seeded eighth and made it to the championship game before losing to a magical run by Connecticut.
But it turns out that maybe fifth-seeded Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana is the outlier primed for a big run through a loaded East Regional bracket to reach the Final Four in Houston.
The Hoosiers lost two key reserves to injuries Saturday and still had the versatility and depth to “out-athlete” Kentucky, if such a thing is possible, and score a 73-67 victory that puts them in Philadelphia on Friday. They will meet top-seeded North Carolina, which beat Providence, 85-66.
That’s a big departure from the script that had Kentucky and North Carolina at the top of the marquee next week. Wildcats coach John Calipari said, “We did not play our best, but maybe it was because of them.”
Without naming names, Cal hinted that freshmen Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe didn’t exactly bring it against a tough Hoosiers defense. They left the game entirely to the two-man tandem of guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, both of whom will be in the NBA next season. Ulis was great, scoring 27 points, but Murray was just so-so, scoring 16 and shooting 1-for-9 from three-point range.
Calipari said he felt “sick for my team,” but in the bigger picture, he added, “We’ve got a heck of a group [of recruits] coming in, maybe the best ever. Now I’m going to have a new team. Surprise!”
While Calipari had no problem shifting gears to next year, Indiana coach Tom Crean has put together what might be the “now” team of the tournament. Indiana has the requisite floor general in Yogi Ferrell, whose superb stat line included 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and only one turnover while being defended by the spider-quick Ulis.
Ferrell got tremendous support from 6-10 center Thomas Bryant with 19 points, wing man Troy Williams with 13 and OG Anunoby with seven off the bench. The Hoosiers’ bench outscored the Wildcats 18-7 and the defense limited the Kentucky frontcourt players to a combined 14 points.
“We did a great job of limiting Murray’s catches, and we helped each other on defense,” Ferrell said. “I basically stuck to my strengths and found my shooters, found guys like Thomas cutting to the rim when I drive and they’re coming to block my shot.”
With the score tied at 50, it was Bryant who came out of a timeout and converted a three-point play on a play designed for him. That was followed by a three-pointer by Anunoby and a jumper by Ferrell to complete the 8-0 spurt that had the Wildcats chasing the rest of the way.
Crean said his team’s versatility allowed the Hoosiers to switch a guard on to 6-9 Kentucky sharpshooter Derek Willis, who was held scoreless, and then cover Ulis at times with a 6-8 player.
Asked about the athleticism that made it possible, Crean said, “I don’t think anybody ever has too much of anything that Kentucky doesn’t have, right? They’ve got scoring, they’ve got length, they’ve got ballhandling. But we’ve got versatility. Matchups for us are not as important as staying in front of the ball.”
It’s a tremendous combination of assets that will make the Hoosiers dangerous against anyone they meet in Philadelphia. “We have no intention of just showing up in Philadelphia,” Crean said. “We fully expect to keep going. There is a real drive for each other, a real care for each other, and when you’ve got that, I’ll take our chances and let’s see what happens.”