Indiana is a good team that has had a bad season. Maybe. Or maybe Indiana is a mediocre team that has had a mediocre season. IU probably is not a bad team that has had a kind-of-good season, although that is an available interpretation too.
The 2019 Hoosiers are the quintessential bubble team—a confounding mix of good wins, a pile of losses, a star player and a blue-blood history that, like it or not, always plays a role in these things.
Indiana lost its 15th game of the year Thursday, exiting the Big Ten tournament with a 79-75 defeat to the now 19-14 Ohio State. Under most circumstances, a 15-loss team would not get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but Indiana is the ultimate stress test for the men's selection committee.
On the one hand, that's a whole lot of losses—would a team with a different name on its chest even be considered at 17-15? On the other hand, you don't have to squint to see a good team hiding inside that awful record.
In the last three weeks, Indiana has beaten two ranked teams, No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 6 Michigan State. In November, IU blew out No. 24 Marquette and followed that with quality wins over Louisville and Butler. The Hoosiers got demolished by Duke during the nonconference season, but entering the new year, Indiana was 11-2 and looked like it had the horsepower to compete for the Big Ten championship.
Then the engine blew up.
The Hoosiers went 1-12 between Jan. 6 and Feb. 22 and got the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
So what do you do with that if you're the selection committee? If the goal is simply to reward the most accomplished teams with at-large bids, Indiana probably doesn't qualify. But if you're looking to put the best possible teams in the field, the question gets more complicated.
In Romeo Langford, Indiana has one of the best NBA prospects in college basketball, and sweeping Michigan State proves the Hoosiers are capable of beating any squad in the country when they're playing well...which is about half the time.
Statistically, there is evidence IU is better than its record indicates. The Hoosiers were the second-best shooting team in the Big Ten this year (45.9 percent from the field), and they finished sixth in the league in scoring (71.5 points per game), third in blocks (4.44) and fifth in steals (6.53). Their biggest deficiency is their 31.4 percent three-point shooting, which is a concern of some significance in the modern space-and-pace era.
It would be rare and controversial to put a team with Indiana's resume in the tournament, but it does have a recent precedent. In 2016 and 2017, Vanderbilt got at-large bids with records of 19-14 and 19-16, respectively.
An older but better comparison would be Villanova in 1991. The Wildcats got an at-large bid despite a 16-14 record and a loss in the Big East semifinals. But they beat five ranked teams that year, got a No. 9 seed and still have the distinction of "team with the worst record that won an NCAA tournament game."
And that has to be a factor. No matter what you think of Indiana's team this year, the history of the NCAA tournament suggests a team with this many losses will almost certainly lose its first game and has no chance of making the Sweet 16.
But do you really believe that? Do you really believe this Indiana team is incapable of winning two tournament games? The Hoosiers couldn't get in as a No. 10 seed, beat a No. 7 and then take down a No. 2 seed along the lines of, oh, Michigan State?
Indiana puts the selection committee in a philosophical bind. Doing what's "fair" probably means giving that at-large bid to a team with fewer than 15 losses, and there are plenty of good candidates. But doing what's "best" for the tournament may mean taking a chance on a tantalizing but deeply flawed Hoosiers team.
The safe move for the selection committee would be to leave out Indiana. Nobody is going be saying the Hoosiers got screwed if they don't get in. Nobody will rip the committee for going with some team with a better record.
But if keeping everybody happy is your jam, being on the selection committee is probably not the gig for you. The job is to put the best teams in the tournament.
And on Selection Sunday, Indiana's fate will tell us a lot about how the committee is making that judgment.