By Justin Whitaker
— For the first time since 1994, the Indiana men’s basketball team is headed to the Sweet Sixteen in back-to-back years.
The No. 1-seeded Hoosiers (29-6) will face No. 4 seed Syracuse (28-9) at 9:45 p.m. Thursday at Washington, D.C.’s, Verizon Center.
The last time these two teams met in the postseason was the 1987 NCAA national championship game when Keith Smart’s last second shot lifted Indiana over Syracuse, 74-73.
That was the Hoosiers’ fifth (1940, ‘53, ‘76, and ‘81) and most recent national championship. The Orange won its only title in 2003 with freshman Carmelo Anthony leading the way.
The two traditional basketball powerhouses both have taken similar routes in the NCAA tournament to get to the Sweet Sixteen. Both teams cruised in their second-round games and survived a scare in their third-round games.
Indiana beat No. 16 seed James Madison 83-62 in a game where the Hoosiers never trailed and freshman Yogi Ferrell added 16 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. No. 9 seed Temple fell to Indiana 58-52 in the third round as Owls’ guard Khalif Wyatt scored 31 points and did his best to dispatch of the Big Ten regular season champions. The Hoosiers trailed by four with 2:56 left but ended the game on a 10-0 run as Wyatt went cold and IU got hot. Victor Oladipo’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds put the game on ice as he extended the lead to four.
Syracuse trounced No. 13 seed Montana 81-34 in the most lopsided victory in NCAA tournament history for a team seeded third or worse. The Orange’s patent zone defense limited the Grizzlies to 20 percent shooting from the field.
No. 12 seed California lost 66-60 to Syracuse as the Orange struggled putting the “orange” in the goal. Syracuse went 12 minutes without a field goal, missed 15 free throws, and made only six shots in the second half while shooting 39 percent for the game. The Orange did make 14 more free throws than the Golden Bears.
Throughout Indiana and Syracuse’s histories, the teams have only met four times with the Hoosiers’ only victory coming in the ’87 title game. The Orange won its games in 1990 and twice in ‘98.
In IU’s past two games against Big East opponents, they defeated Georgetown 82-72 in overtime in Brooklyn earlier this year and beat Pittsburgh 74-64 in 2009 at the Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden.
All-American sophomore center Cody Zeller (16.9 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) will be key to the Hoosiers’ success against Syracuse’s zone defense. If Zeller is able to get in the middle and create for himself and others successfully, Indiana’s chances of winning will greatly increase.
If Indiana were able to beat Syracuse and advance to the Elite Eight, they would meet the winner of the No. 2 seed Miami and No. 3 seed Marquette where intriguing storylines lay with each pairing.
The Hurricanes’ matchup would pit the ACC and Big Ten champions against each other. Oladipo would also most likely garner the responsibility of slowing down star sophomore guard Shane Larkin (14.6 points and 4.4 assists per game).
A meeting against the Golden Eagles would be Crean’s first contest against the team he coached for nine years (1999-2008) before leaving to come to IU.
The East region is the only section of the bracket that still has all four of its top seeds left.
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery and Rachel Nichols)
Radio: IU Radio Network (Don Fischer, Royce Waltman, Joe Smith)
Dial Global (Ian Eagle and John Thompson)