The box of gray T-shirts arrived in Portland last Thursday, a few hours before Indiana tipped off against New Mexico State. The front of the tees read: ATTACK THIS DAY WITH AN ENTHUSIASM UNKNOWN TO MANKIND!—a mantra familiar to anyone who has spent time around Jim or John Harbaugh, the NFL coaches and brothers-in-law of Hoosiers coach Tom Crean. The shirts, which a handful of Indiana players wore the day after beating the Aggies 79--66, were a gift from John, who had added on the back: NCAA TOURNEY 2012 FINISH THE FIGHT.
Not many slogans better sum up what the Hoosiers did in beating Virginia Commonwealth 63--61 last Saturday to reach their first Sweet 16 since 2002. Faced with the Rams' unnerving Havoc defense—an unusually intense pressure D the Hoosiers attempted to replicate in their Friday practice by playing five-on-seven—the Hoosiers coughed up the ball 22 times. But they also clamped down on defense in the final 12:30, thwarting VCU on 14 of its final 16 possessions to erase a nine-point deficit and win on sophomore forward Will Sheehey's 12-foot baseline jumper with 12.7 seconds to go. "We were so locked in," said Hoosiers junior forward Derek Elston. "I have never seen this team come up with that many stops in a row like that."
Indiana's return to the Sweet 16 a quarter century after its last NCAA title is just the latest unexpected achievement for a program most observers thought would need at least another year to fully emerge from a dark era of NCAA sanctions and coaching turmoil that saw the 2008--09 team, Crean's first, win just six games. Coming off a 12--20 season, the Hoosiers didn't get a single vote in either preseason poll last fall. Yet Indiana has beaten a No. 1 (Kentucky), a No. 2 (Ohio State) and a No. 5 (Michigan State) on the way to a 27--8 record, the program's best since 1993. Crean's signing of the amiable and athletic 6'11" center Cody Zeller, the Big Ten freshman of the year, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds against VCU, has helped the cause. But so has the work of less heralded players, such as Sheehey, sophomore guard Victor Oladipo, junior forward Christian Watford and junior point guard Jordan Hulls, a 49.3% three-point shooter who is such a gym rat that earlier this season he spent the night at Cook Hall, the campus practice facility players can access 24-7, after a postgame shooting session. "A lot of these guys wore out their swipe cards going in there to get better this summer," says assistant coach Tim Buckley. "Because of those guys the culture has changed dramatically."
But the underdog mentality hasn't. Asked about the Hoosiers' prospects of beating Sweet 16 opponent Kentucky a second time, Elston was diplomatic. "People love to pick against us," he said, "and we love winning."
THE HOOSIERS THWARTED VCU ON 14 OF ITS FINAL 16 POSSESSIONS TO ERASE A NINE-POINT DEFICIT. "WE WERE SO LOCKED IN," SAID IU'S ELSTON.
RAM TOUGH Oladipo had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting against VCU.