JMU set to face top-seeded Hoosiers
DAYTON, Ohio — Matt Brady strolled into UD Arena around noon Thursday with a plastic foam coffee cup in his hand and a cool grin on his face.
On the first full day of the NCAA Tournament last year, he wasn’t quite so beaming. Brady was on the road recruiting — he doesn’t remember exactly where — and he didn’t much care about watching the games then.
“When you’re not in it, you’re not as excited about doing that,” Brady said.
He won’t be watching games on television today, either. Instead he’ll be on the sideline for the biggest test of his nine-year head coaching career. At 4:10 p.m. at UD Arena, Brady will try to guide James Madison to the first-ever NCAA Tournament upset by a 16-seed over a No. 1.
No brash statements, but Brady thinks the Dukes have a chance to beat Big Ten powerhouse Indiana.
“I think it’s not unrealistic,” he said. “The kids recognize that we’re playing a great basketball team. We met for a while this morning and showed them some tape, and I can tell you, with all honesty, it’s the first time that every guy in the room was locked on the tape and not distracted for any length of time.
“So it’s a focused team. It is a confident team. But as I’ve said to the team, we’re going to have to play great, and we’re going to have to hope that they don’t play great. That’s the nature of the game at this level when it’s a 16 playing a 1.”
Madison has won a season-best five straight games, but those victories have been against teams from its own Colonial Athletic Association and, in Wednesday’s play-in game, Northeast Conference champion Long Island Brooklyn.
Indiana, featuring All-American candidates Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, will provide a whole different type of challenge, and the easiest difference to spot is size.
The average height of LIU’s starters was 6-feet-2½ inches. While Indiana’s backcourt is small — speedy point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell and deadeye shooter Jordan Hulls are only 6-feet apiece — the forwards are huge. Zeller, an agile big man averaging 16.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, is 7 feet tall and a top-five NBA draft prospect. Christian Watford is 6-9, 232 pounds and can play away from the basket. Oladipo, a 6-5 guard who plays bigger because of his feral athleticism, is also a likely NBA lottery pick.
“Every game that we go out to, we want to get inside to me and Christian, and our offense flows well after that,” Zeller said of exploiting the size advantage against JMU, which usually doesn’t start a player taller than 6-6, but figures to use 6-9, 230-pound freshman Taylor Bessick more than the 11.4 minutes he averages. “…So that’s always a big key for us. Then also rebounding is a big part of it. Really the same stuff we’ve been doing all year, but it really gets us going, I guess.”
Even in a rugged conference with plenty of future pros in the frontcourt, Indiana out-rebounded opponents by nearly eight boards per game. JMU, which started five guards in its 68-55 win over LIU, was a net negative on the glass this season.
That will leave the Dukes little room for error.
“We have to change speeds a little bit and we have to make sure we defend the lane and make sure that they shoot jump shots,” Brady said in a hallway leading up to the court, prior to his press conference. “This is an extraordinary team. … This team has far fewer holes than any team I’ve coached against.”
Indiana is the most efficient offensive team in the country, scoring 1.156 points per possession. The Hoosiers don’t lack anything defensively, either, allowing just 0.888 ppp, the 15th-best mark in America. IU’s field-goal percentage (.487) ranks seventh, and its 3-point percentage (.411) is third highest. Fifth-year coach Tom Crean’s team plays at a moderately fast pace (68.7 possessions per 40 minutes), which is the speediest in the Big Ten but 110th nationally.
The Hoosiers, the top-ranked team in the preseason, know not to take the NCAA Tournament for granted. IU missed the tourney in Crean’s first three seasons, going just 28-66 (.298 winning percentage) during that time. Last season was Indiana’s rebound year, when it won 27 games and gave hope that the future could resemble the glorious past.
Expectations in Bloomington, which is 166 miles from Dayton, are huge. Hoosier fans expect this team to win its first national championship since 1987, when Bob Knight was coaching a team starring Steve Alford and Keith Smart.
And 21-point underdog JMU doesn’t have any expectations — “We have nothing to lose,” freshman Andre Nation said — which could make it a dangerous opponent if it plays an A-plus game.