There was a sequence in Indiana's 73-64 semifinal upset over Oklahoma that tells you all you need to know about the Hoosiers.
Indiana trailed 13-9 after reserve A.J. Moye hit a runner in the lane against the Sooners' suddenly intensified defensive pressure. Then, Oklahoma's increased pace began to work. After a miss on each end, Oklahoma ran a fast break off a rebound for a Jason Detrick basket and 15-9. Dane Fife missed a three for Indiana, Hollis Price rebounded for the Sooners and hit Ebi Ere with an outlet pass. Ere pulled up and hit a 15-footer. Oklahoma led 17-9 and Indiana appeared to be on the ropes.
Indiana coach Mike Davis called timeout to halt the momentum. When play resumed, backup center Jeff Newton, in the game because of Jared Jeffries' foul trouble, had the sequence that will earn him his little corner of Hoosier lore. He lost Daryan Selvy on a bad switch, took a nifty lob pass from Fife, scored and was fouled by Selvy. (Well, Selvy never touched him, but the whistle blew all the same. More on that later.) Three-point play. After an Ere basket, Newton drove the lane the next time down, scored and was fouled again, the first foul on Aaron McGhee, Oklahoma's biggest offensive weapon Saturday, whose eventual foul-out would help doom the Sooners. Another three-point play. Now it was 19-15.
Oklahoma would keep scoring, but by the time the Sooners finally missed one and Indiana didn't, it was 23-22 Oklahoma. The Hoosiers had answered with a modest but telling 13-6 run.
What the sequence tells you about Indiana is that the Hoosiers don't panic when they're in trouble, they take advantage of your mistakes, and they have a very good coach. The first two are a product of the third.
Mike Davis is not a shouter, not a stomper, not a sweater. He spends most of the game doing something college coaches almost never do: sitting in his chair. When his team took some haymakers and started stepping in post holes, he didn't gesticulate wildly and scream at them. He called timeout, sat them down, talked to them.
The Hoosiers needed Oklahoma to give them an opening. If Oklahoma had played against Indiana the way it played against Missouri and Arizona in its last two games, it probably wouldn't have mattered what Indiana did. Still, given that opening, Indiana cashed in. On that first play after the timeout, for example, it took a quick reaction by Newton that Oklahoma wasn't switching properly, a recognition of the situation and then a good pass by Fife, and a good finish by Newton.
Oklahoma fans will wonder why the Sooners' defensive pressure, even before their key big men got into foul trouble, wasn't as ferocious as it had been the two previous games, why Ere, who seemed to be able to score at will early, stopped getting the ball, why Hollis Price, so devastating against Missouri, couldn't get his shots to fall. But this wasn't a choke job. Indiana played beautifully.
The TV analysts seem to miss no opportunity to remind us that this Indiana team, while coached by Davis, is partly Bob Knight's team, since Knight recruited most of the players. Fair enough. But when's the last time a Knight team overachieved, or, if you prefer, simply achieved, like this one? And imagine what Davis can do with a team full of great athletes, not one stocked with prototypical Knight players -- smart, solid, unspectacular, not in possession of the kind of jaw-dropping skills that give a player license to stand up to Knight's bullying. It will be interesting to see what the "typical" Indiana player will look like five years down the road.
At some point you have to stop thinking of the Hoosiers as a "Cinderella" team and start believing that although they don't have the talent of the other Final Four teams, they're well coached and they're red hot, and they can beat anybody.
So the obvious question is, Will they beat Maryland? And the answer to that would be, well, it's possible.
There was another telling sequence in Maryland's 97-88 semifinal win over Kansas, my pick to win it all.
Kansas had roared to a 13-2 lead by the first TV timeout. By the next one, 3:55 later, the Terrapins had crawled back into the game with an 11-5 run, thanks mostly to Juan Dixon, their star guard, who had a pair of three-pointers, plus a steal and a layup. Dixon hit a jumper coming off the break for 18-15, and then came the sequence that I found fascinating.
Jayhawk reserve Keith Langford drove the lane and missed a layup. He was clearly fouled by Chris Wilcox, but no call. Langford and Lonny Baxter fought for the rebound, which caromed off of them to Kansas' Nick Collison, whose put-back try hit the rim. Langford got that rebound and got hammered from behind by Steve Blake as he missed a four-footer. No call there either. The rebound of Langford's shot came down into a scrum of Langford (he was everywhere!) and Maryland's Dixon and Byron Mouton. The refs blew their whistles and signalled "tie-up," meaning the Jayhawks retained the ball because they had the possession arrow.
(By the way, remind me of the purpose of that possession arrow rule? What, exactly, was wrong with the old jump ball rule anyway?)
Langford seemed a little miffed that the officials hadn't called a foul, and you could see that he had a point when the replay revealed that Mouton had ahold of not only the basketball but also Langford's left leg. You could just hear Langford: "Excuse me. I'm going to need that back."
The point here is this: It's a crap shoot. Maryland made a nice defensive stand there (Kansas eventually missed a shot to end the possession), and Kansas' rebounding was superb. But the refs could have called at least three fouls in the sequence, but chose not to. At other times, the lightest hand check, having no bearing on the course of play, will be whistled. The first foul would have resulted in Kansas free throws. Once it wasn't called, the other two would have had no real impact on the play at hand, since Kansas retained possession anyway, but considering how foul trouble can hurt a team -- it helped doom Oklahoma -- every foul has the potential to have major impact on a game.
Kansas wasn't beaten by the referees. (In fact, the Jayhawks should think only kind thoughts about the zebras after their first-round game, in which a couple of horrendous calls in their favor in the final minute helped them escape a challenge by No. 16 Holy Cross.) It was Juan Dixon killed the beast. But the officials, with their ever-changing and completely nonsensical definition of what does and does not constitute a foul, are a wild card element in any game.
Talent tends to win out in the end. There weren't any teams in the Final Four who didn't play their way in, even Kansas, which I think would have survived Holy Cross even without the officiating help. But you never know. If your big horse has picked up an early foul, and then he gets whistled for one of those weird little barely-touched-him fouls, now he's got to sit down, and the complexion of the game changes.
It could happen to anyone, but it tends to happen more often to big men, who play in traffic. And that's why I think Maryland will beat Indiana. The refs might be a wild card, but Dixon, a guard who has never fouled out of a game, is a trump card. He's the one player in the Final Four who can consistently put his team on his back and carry it to a win. He did it Saturday, scoring 33 points, all of them after his team fell behind in those grisly first four minutes. He's been doing it the whole Tournament, and he did it during the season too. The Hoosiers have no one who can do that. Jeffries, their best player, is smart and has a ton of talent. He'll put up nice numbers, but he rarely takes over a game.
I've been saying all along that I just don't believe in Maryland. I still don't, really. I think the Terps are extremely beatable. Once you get past Dixon, they have a lot of solid guys but not many formidable weapons.
But I've become a believer in Dixon. With money on the table, you're just not going to get past him. I think he'll put his team on his back one last time and send Indiana home a disappointed but magnificent runner-up. And one with a bright future.