T-shirts were printed up last season after Indiana’s December upset of then top-ranked Kentucky proclaiming that the Hoosiers’ men’s basketball program was “back.”
It seemed like a burst of bravado at the time, a cathartic release after three consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
But IU made the statement stand up, knocking off two more top-five foes at Assembly Hall and finishing with a 27-9 overall record and a trip to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
Now the Hoosiers (26-5) have a chance to do something that will cause far more than the production of popular T-shirts. Indiana rightfully has a spot on college basketball’s Mount Rushmore — alongside North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky — but with that comes great expectations.
Success in those programs is measured in national championship banners and Final Four appearances. IU hasn’t hung one of the former since 1987 and hasn’t made a trip to the latter since 2002.
The current Hoosiers already have claimed their first outright Big Ten title since 1993, but the goal for a team that started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation always has been far greater.
The road to that greater glory was paved quite nicely by the NCAA tournament selection committee on Sunday.
A 3-3 finish likely cost IU the No. 1 overall seed and a potential regional appearance in Indianapolis, but the team’s path through the East Regional likely is a better overall deal.
The tournament run starts Friday in Dayton, Ohio, and would continue next week in Washington, D.C. To reach the Final Four in Atlanta next month — which should be the minimum objective for this group — the Hoosiers must navigate a field with ACC regular season and tournament champion Miami and a pair of Big East bullies in Marquette and Syracuse.
Butler, which beat IU at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in December, also is in this bracket. But the Bulldogs have a tough road to a potential Elite Eight rematch with the Hoosiers.
Butler would need to knock off upset-minded Bucknell in the opening round then likely get a second win over Marquette — following a November buzzer-beater in Maui — and an upset over the high-flying Hurricanes.
An Elite Eight battle between IU and Marquette also would be very interesting. Current Hoosiers coach Tom Crean led the Golden Eagles — and star Dwyane Wade — to their most recent Final Four appearance in 2003.
It really isn’t important who Indiana meets on the road to the Final Four, however, just that the Hoosiers arrive safely in Atlanta.
IU has a deep and talented roster, but junior first-team All-American Victor Oladipo likely will jump to the NBA next fall. And sophomore second-team All-American Cody Zeller could follow.
That lends a sense of urgency to the proceedings over the next few weeks.
If IU and its fans truly want to scream “We’re back” to the college basketball world, winning this month and early next is the surest way to do so.
Contact George Bremer: 640-4831, firstname.lastname@example.org