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Hoosiers end NCAA tourney drought with bid

By Michael Marot

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 9:06 p.m. MDT

Indiana guard Verdell Jones III, center, celebrates with teammates after hearing their draw to play New Mexico State in the NCAA college basketball tournament, Sunday, March 11, 2012, during a selection show party in Bloomington, Ind.

The Herald-Times, Chris Howell, Associated Press

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INDIANAPOLIS — Verdell Jones pumped his fist, Jordan Hulls kept slapping teammates' hands and Tom Crean walked through two rows of players congratulating each one.

No, the Hoosiers may not be all the way back to their lofty perch yet, but Sunday's celebration was one more giant step in that direction.

Indiana is heading back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, ending a painful drought for one of the nation's blue-blood basketball programs. The fourth-seeded Hoosiers will play 13th-seeded New Mexico State on Thursday night in Portland, Ore.

The specifics weren't terribly important.

"It's a great feeling to be with your team, to see them get a dream come true," said Crean, the Indiana coach., "You don't start following college basketball without knowing what this day means and without knowing what that selection show means. And every one of them, no matter what age they started watching, they remember it and now they will always have this to remember."

Fortunately, for the Hoosiers (25-8), they didn't have to wait long to find out where they were headed.

Less than 15 minutes into the selection show, Indiana's name popped up in the same South Region bracket as Kentucky and Duke, a region that also includes three of last year's Final Four teams -- Connecticut, Kentucky and Virginia Commonwealth.

But in Bloomington, all that really mattered was that they were back after missing postseason play the last three years.

Players, coaches and their families gathered for a private viewing party inside the Henke Hall of Champions at the refurbished football stadium. and when their name popped up on the television screen, they all stood up, roared loudly, applauded and started hugging one another.

"Everybody's kind of doubted us, everybody's been going against us in big games," forward Derek Elston said. "Knowing that we've come out of those with wins, and seeing that we're finally back in the tournament, it's a lot of fun to be part of this right."

Few teams did more to earn their at-large bid than these Hoosiers.

Four years ago, Crean took over a program under an NCAA investigation for a phone-call scandal that occurred under his predecessor, Kelvin Sampson. Within six weeks, the program was gutted.

Crean's first team included only two returnees, both walk-ons, two scholarship players (Tom Pritchard and Matt Roth) recruited by Sampson, a junior college transfer and one freshman (Jones) that Crean convinced to sign with the Hoosiers in April.

After going 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20 in those first three dismal seasons, Indiana produced its most memorable season in nearly a decade.

It was one of two teams to upset No. 1 Kentucky. It became the first Big Ten team in nearly six decades to knock off a No. 1 team and a No. 2 team in the same season. It finished with a perfect nonconference record for the first time since 1989-90, a school record 18 victories at Assembly Hall and three regular-season wins over top-five teams for the first time in school history.

A win over New Mexico State would give Indiana its highest victory total since the 1992-93 team won 31 games, the Big Ten crown and came within one win of reaching the Final Four.

Plus, their 13-game improvement was the best of any school in a BCS conference.

"It's a great feeling, it's one we'll probably reflect upon a lot more when the season's over," Crean said.

But before they could even let the party begin in earnest, CBS commentator said Seth Davis tamped down the celebration.

He the loss of Jones, to a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee, was likely to prevent the Hoosiers from reaching the second weekend and a potential rematch with Kentucky. Jones was injured in Thursday's victory over Penn State at the Big Ten tournament, and the next day, the Hoosiers struggled in a 79-71 loss to Wisconsin.

Jones scored, 1,347 points in his career and after all those trials and tribulations won't even get to play this week. He does plan on being in Portland, though.

And when Jones heard the comment, he started shaking his head and waved his hand at the TV screen.

"He's been doubting us all year," Jones said. "I think we like being underdogs."

The Hoosiers have had no choice but to play that role over the past three years.

But they shed that image with a remarkably resurgent season and now hope to do the same thing over the next three weeks.

"It's a major accomplishment for this team to be in this situation because certainly a year ago this time, certainly throughout the spring, the summer, the fall, the preseason, the predictions, I don't think anyone envisioned seeing us at this point, having a day like this," Crean said. "They have earned it. They have earned every bit of it."

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