The worst decision and the best decisions made by the NCAA Tournament selection committee shared space on Lucas Oil Stadium’s hardwood Friday night.
The Midwest Regional’s opener pitted Louisville and Oregon, two teams that were on the opposite sides of the NCAA’s coin on Selection Sunday.
Oregon, winner of the Pac-12 Tournament and Pac-12 runner-up in the regular season, was shockingly seeded 12th in the Midwest Region.
The Ducks, who count former Indiana State head coach Kevin McKenna among their staff, proved the committee wrong by dispatching Oklahoma State and Saint Louis to advance to the Sweet 16.
But Louisville, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, emphatically proved the selection committee right. Not only with its seed, but also with its tournament site placing. On Friday, Louisville cruised to a 77-69 victory over Oregon to advance to the Elite Eight and the Midwest Regional championship, which will be played Sunday.
Louisville’s selection as the tournament’s top seed wasn’t controversial so much as frustrating for fans of Indiana. IU faithful wanted to see Lucas Oil Stadium painted in a crimson coronation this weekend instead of the Louisville Cardinal red that was predominant instead.
After winning the Big Ten championship and spending 10 weeks in the top spot in the Associated Press poll, many Hoosiers fans thought playing a regional final in Indianapolis was a lead-pipe certainty.
Louisville, ranked out of the AP top 10 as recently as Feb. 11, stole IU’s dream. No one thought Louisville’s farcical striped pajama shorts would replace IU’s famed striped warm-ups at Lucas Oil and some Hoosiers fans thought it was unfair at the time.
The Cardinals won 10 in a row prior to Selection Sunday. IU had a stirring Big Ten title clincher at Michigan, then stumbled with a Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Wisconsin. The selection committee elected to give Louisville’s fans the two-hour drive to Indy and shipped the Hoosiers to the East Region in Washington, D.C.
If the Hoosiers had thrived and the Cardinals had faltered in the tournament, the committee would have been fricasseed and the degree of the heat would have depended on how close one was to Bloomington.
Of course it didn’t happen that way.
Louisville looked like a team on a mission against Oregon. The Cardinals scored when they wanted and put Oregon behind an 8-ball with a 26-10 start. Louisville ran the floor with abandon and used Rick Pitino’s famed press to force tempo and cause problems. In the first 10 minutes, the nervous Ducks looked every bit the 12-seed they never deserved to be.
Oregon played relatively well from that point, but Louisville never let up — and other than a brief glimmer when Oregon cut the lead to six with five minutes to go — the Cardinals never gave the Ducks much hope.
Having seen IU play Temple earlier this week, the Cardinals’ energy and unity of purpose was a sharp contrast. Louisville was confident and able to force its style of play on its opponent in a way Indiana never exhibited in its tournament run.
That’s what was so vexing about the Hoosiers — whose postseason came to a bitter end with a 61-50 East Regional semifinal loss to Syracuse on Thursday. Despite being a No. 1 seed, IU didn’t seem capable of imposing its will in the tournament. Rather, IU was reactive and tried to solve what opponents threw at them.
That proved to be its undoing. IU was fortunate to get past Temple on Sunday in Dayton, Ohio, and Syracuse’s 2-3 zone flummoxed the Hoosiers on Thursday. IU looked tired, uninspired and possibly unprepared in a way Big Ten champions rarely are in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the presence of potential game-changers in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller (who showed he has a lot of work to do to succeed in the NBA), the Hoosiers never used their talent to strike fear in their foes.
Not so for Louisville. The Cardinals punched and kept punching in a way the Hoosiers never could. Guard Russ Smith, who averages 18.4 points per game, laid down a marker with 31 against the Ducks. Center Gorgui Dieng contributed 10 points and nine rebounds, right on his season average. Louisville did, or exceeded, what it’s done all season.
Maybe it would have been different for IU if it had been at Lucas Oil Stadium. We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Cardinals proved they belonged in Indy. And if Louisville keeps playing the way it did Friday, it will prove to be a worthy champion as well.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.