In less than a month the NCAA men’s national basketball tournament will be in full swing and college basketball fans will be gearing up to witness a nail-biting drama unfold during (what is appropriately referred to as) “March Madness.” Between March 19th-April 8th, 68 Division-I men’s basketball teams will compete for a national title in one of the most thrill-inducing sporting events of the year.
Last season the University of Kentucky soared to the national champion mountaintop on the wings of a star-studded freshman class, led by National Player of the Year and eventual first pick of the 2012 NBA draft Anthony Davis. Although this year’s Wildcat team was widely considered a preseason title contender it is unlikely coach John Calipari’s group can claw their way back to the top due to inconsistent performances on the hardwood and a season-ending injury for highly touted freshman Nerlens Noel. Unless the basketball gods have a miracle up their sleeve, the Big Blue Nation will be hard pressed to repeat as national champions.
About 200 miles north of Lexington, in another basketball-crazed state, a pair of Indiana University seniors have spent the past four hard fought years preparing to stake their claim on this years title.
In the fall of 2009, when Rivals top 150 recruits Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford arrived in Bloomington, a national championship appearance was not foreseeable, let alone a NCAA tournament bid. Newly appointed men’s head basketball coach Tom Crean signed the two players when his Indiana program was in complete disarray, due in part to five major NCAA violations made by his predecessor Kelvin Sampson. Hulls and Watford joined an ailing Hoosier squad that finished the previous season just 1-17 in the Big Ten conference. As freshman, they were part of an Indiana team that compiled a 4-14 mark in Big Ten play. The following year, their conference record fell to a paltry 3-15. Optimism for the legendary hoops program waned and attendance at Assembly Hall dwindled. Watford and Hulls could have easily jumped shipped, opting to transfer to another Division-I school where they wouldn’t have to face public scrutiny, disbursing their skills to a team where winning would be standard protocol. Yet, despite the torrential valley they found themselves in, both players upheld their commitment to Crean and his staff.
In the fall of 2011, high school All-American and Rivals five-star recruit Cody Zeller was brought into the Hoosier fold. The freshman center instantly made an enormous impact and Indiana would finish the 2011-12 Big Ten campaign 11-7, boasting a 27-9 overall record. Furthermore, the team would receive their first NCAA tournament nod under Crean’s direction and subsequently advance to the sweet sixteen. A sense of optimism emerged, both on campus and throughout the state, for a program that once found itself in the basement of the Big Ten. No longer were the Indiana Hoosiers an opponents punching bag. They had now grown into a bona-fide national contender competing in a league considered by experts to be the toughest in the land.
The lone seniors in Indiana’s starting five, Hulls and Watford find themselves in pole position for a Big Ten regular season title and, more impressively, a favorite to win the national championship. According to the Associated Press and USA Today/ ESPN polls, the Hoosiers have held the number one national ranking longer than any other Division-I men’s basketball program this season. Having survived the madness in a formerly bruised program, the two seniors are now poised and ready to contend with the madness that is awaiting them this March.