Back Home Again: Your Guide to Picking a Team in the All-Indiana NCAA Tournament

When I say that I love basketball, I say it with all of the conviction that Senator Sheev Palpatine claims to love democracy. Basketball, most basketball played, is just a means to an end. That end being the NBA, where the game is played at its highest level. Still, there is an undeniable charm and magic to the amateur game, especially here in Indiana. For the better part of the 20th Century, Indiana held a massive, all-inclusive high school tournament called Hoosier Hysteria. It meant that teams from around Indianapolis, Terre Haute, and Chicago burbs (aka The Region) could play against teams from towns with populations smaller than the aforementioned schools’ graduation classes. It was something special, but for the last quarter-century it has been absent, reformed as tournaments for each separate class of schools. This year, all 67 games of the NCAA’s signature event will be played in the state of Indiana. In some way, for at least one year, the Hysteria has returned.

Tonight the First Four, a set of play-in games typically played in Dayton, Ohio, will be played alternating between the historic venues of Mackey Arena at Purdue and Assembly Hall at IU. Tomorrow, the tournament in earnest will begin at those two locations as well as the iconic Hinkle Field house at Butler, Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the fairgrounds, the Pacers’ home- Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and the former home of the Indy Eleven- Lucas Oil Stadium. It is a massive undertaking for the city, especially amid a (still, absolutely going on) pandemic. Yet it conjures up the echoes of that romanticized image of an age when basketball was a driving force in our state.

This year’s tournament is special, not just because it takes place in my city. No, it’s also a treat because the traditional bluebloods are non-factors. Really! I’m not just saying that Duke is like a 5 seed or something. They’re not even here! Kentucky, too! No IU, which is particularly funny. Even once-great schools like Michigan State and UCLA have to PLAY EACH OTHER just to get to the main tournament. It’s wild. Yeah, sure, recent powerhouse Gonzaga is undefeated and the favorite to run the table, but there is so much more beyond that. You know damn well the first weekend of the tournament is about as predictable as Russian roulette. 12-seeds beat 5-seeds. It’s almost a rule now. And every year at least one 2 or 3 seed is threatened in its first game. Everything else is chaos. That’s what makes the tournament special.

So who should you root for? Aside from any allegiances or bracket pools you may have, there are so many games that it can be tough to figure out who to get behind. So here’s a guide to make it easy.

The CHALK-
Gonzaga Bulldogs (#1 West)
Illinois Fighting Illini (#1 Midwest)
Baylor Bears (#1 South)
Michigan Wolverines (#1 East)

So you’re not very exciting, or you’re a front runner, or maybe you just want to see a team go undefeated (Gonzaga is 26-0). No matter who you follow here, it won’t be very surprising if they cut the nets down at the end.


THE DAY ONES-
Texas Southern / Mount St. Mary’s (#15 East)
Drake / Wichita State (#11 West)
Appalachian State / Norfolk State (#16 West)
UCLA / Michigan State (#11 East)

A mere 25% of teams who make it out of the First Four play-in games advance past the round of 64. Only three times has one made the Sweet 16. Of course, there is the story of the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, who went all the way from the First Four to the Final Four. That alone would be special to see again, I guess less so if the team was one of the fallen blue bloods in the last match up.


THE GOOD NICKNAMES-
Grand Canyon University “Antelopes” (#15 West)
UC Santa Barbara “Gauchos” (#12 West)
Wichita State “Shockers” (#11 West)
Iona “Gaels” (#15 East)
St. Bonaventure “Bonnies” (#9 East)
North Texas “Mean Green” (#13 South)
Drexel “Dragons” (#16 Midwest)
Georgia Tech “Yellow Jackets” (#9 Midwest)
Loyola “Ramblers” (#8 Midwest)

For all of the “Bulldogs” “Cougars” “Wildcats” and surprisingly high number of “Mountaineers”, there are a fair amount of teams that break from the mold when it came to describing themselves. This is like picking a horse in the Kentucky Derby based on the jockey’s silks, but hey… that works out sometimes. None of these teams are expected to make it very far, so at the very least you’ll know their names just in case they end up playing the role of Cinderella.


THE BIG TEN (nine)
Illinois (#1 Midwest)
Michigan (#1 East)
Ohio State (#2 South)
Iowa (#2 West)
Purdue (#4 South)
Wisconsin (#9 South)
Maryland (#10 East)
Rutgers (#10 Midwest)
Michigan State (#11 East)

Maybe you’re from the Midwest and there’s some sort of pride in rooting four a team in the predominantly Midwestern major conference. With nine teams, no conference sent more teams to the tournament than the Big Ten, including four of the top eight overall teams. Even if you’re a fan of one of the few members (Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota) who didn’t make it, there has to be at least one team in-conference that you don’t mind.


THE GROUP THAT’S JUST ALABAMA BECAUSE WHILE THE ALABAMA FOOTBALL TEAM IS ALWAYS GOOD AND THAT’S BORING THE BASKETBALL TEAM IS A GOOD TIME-

Alabama (#2 East)

They’re an upper-echelon blueblood on the gridiron but they have never made a Final Four. The Crimson Tide have only made the Elite Eight ONCE and that was SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO. They’re not underdogs, but they are a genuine delight.


THE TWELVES AND THIRTEENS-

UC Santa Barbara (#12 West)
Ohio (#13 West)
Georgetown (#12 East)
UNC Greensboro (#13 East)
Winthrop (#12 South)
North Texas (#13 South)
Oregon State (#12 Midwest)
Liberty (#13 Midwest)

It’s almost a guarantee that at least one of these will break through to the second week of the tournament. Like I mentioned at the top, 12 seeds just seem to regularly upset their 5 seed opponents. The 13 seeds have a tougher time against the 4 seeds, but its even more exciting when they win. On the rare occasion that both 12 and 13 win their first games, they face off in a heads-up clash of underdogs with a Sweet Sixteen bid on the line. Those games are a blast as an objective fan.


THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK-

Grand Canyon (#15 West)
Hartford (#16 South)

These two are here for the first time, and its likely that they’ll enjoy their forty minutes in the tournament and go home satisfied. After all, Grand Canyon and Hartford have to face Iowa and Baylor, respectively. UMBC’s win over Virginia a few years ago opened the door for true March Madness, so why not believe in the nobodies?


THE PRIME TIME PLAYERS-

Michigan – Juwan Howard (#1 East)
Georgetown – Patrick Ewing (#12 East)
Grand Canyon – Bryce Drew (#15 West)

These dudes made their mark as players in the tournament, and now head-up teams in this year’s iteration. While Howard and Ewing are coaching the teams they once played for, Drew is in charge of the upstart Antelopes rather than his alma mater Valparaiso. This all makes me feel one thousand years old because I’ve seen all of them at their peaks, and those peaks were a long, long, long time ago. It’s cool that some famous names are back, though.


THE ORANGE TEAMS-

Virginia (#4 West)
Virginia Tech (#10 South)
Winthrop (#12 South)
Texas (#3 East)
Illinois (#1 Midwest)
Tennessee (#5 Midwest)
Clemson (#7 Midwest)
Syracuse (#11 Midwest)
Oregon State (#12 Midwest)

Soooo many teams use red and blue that its nice to have a change of pace. All of these teams utilize orange, the fun color, either as their primary or secondary color. If you choose your alliances visually, how about giving these kids a shot.


THE GREEN TEAMS-

Michigan State (#11 West)
Norfolk State (#16 West)
Baylor (#1 South)
North Texas (#13 South)
Cleveland State (#15 Midwest)

So orange isn’t your thing. How about green? Yeah, green is nice. So all but one of these teams are probably going to get knocked out fast. Who cares? At least you’ll be backing an aesthetically rare color.


THE PURPLE TEAMS-

Grand Canyon (#15 West)
LSU (#8 East)
Abelene Christian (#14 East)
Clemson (#7 Midwest)

But not as rare as the best color, purple. Take a look at Clemson, double dipping with orange AND purple.


So yeah, I hope all of this helps. You’ll notice I didn’t mention teams like Kansas, Arkansas, and a bunch of teams that don’t have Kansas in their names. Frankly, those teams are boring and don’t deserve your time. Or maybe they’re good. Who knows? I don’t. BUT we’ll find out soon enough.

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