Next Up: Obama’s Pick
DAYTON, Ohio - The James Madison basketball team will now try to ruin the bracket of the most powerful man in the world.
President Barack Obama picked Indiana, the No. 1 seed out of the East Region, to win the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers will need to win six games, starting with one against some purple-wearing school from Harrisonburg with a bulldog - or something like that - as a mascot.
"We seen it. I laughed," JMU guard Andre Nation said of the president's pick, which ESPN showcases in a segment with analyst Andy Katz each March. "That's expected, though. A No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed."
The Dukes, of course, will try to be the first team to end that trend Friday at UD Arena, where they took down Long Island Brooklyn 68-55 in a play-in game Wednesday night.
How, you ask, will they beat the Big Ten powerhouse, a program synonymous with college hoops? And how many 3-pointers will they need to make to even have a chance?
"That's a good question," Madison coach Matt Brady said inside the winners' locker room Wednesday night. "I'll let you know in a couple hours."
Brady said he would put his three children to bed and then quickly dive into game-film of the Hoosiers (27-6), the nation's preseason No. 1 team that stayed in that spot until mid-December, re-entered it in early February, and then settled in as the fourth-ranked team after some losses.
IU sophomore center Cody Zeller was just one vote shy of being a unanimous pre-season All-American, and he is one of five starters who returned from a group that lost to eventual champion Kentucky in last year's Sweet 16. The Hoosiers also added a big-time recruiting class, including starting point guard Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell.
They are loaded with talent, as JMU well knows, but the Dukes don't sound intimidated.
"Stick to our game-plan, play our hardest," freshman guard Charles Cooke said about an early strategy. "We ain't got nothing to lose. We taking this challenge head on, and we feel like we're going to win, at the end of the day. That's not being cocky, that's straight confidence. We know what we can do on the court."
While freshmen like Nation and Cooke were key in JMU's win Wednesday, combining for 29 points and seven blocked shots, the team's senior core will likely have to play at its highest level to give the Dukes a chance Friday afternoon.
In JMU's only game against a ranked opponent this season, UCLA squashed the Dukes, 100-70. That was Madison's opener, and the team has obviously progressed since then.
"We have some older guys," Brady said. "They're typically pretty unafraid of any of the challenges we face. … Obviously I think Indiana is playing at an extraordinarily high level. I know their team well. I know their personnel. I haven't looked at anything they do. But for us, it's an opportunity to be in a game with the No. 1 seed in the country, and we're excited about the opportunity."
Actually, Louisville is the tournament's top seed, but Indiana is No. 1 in the East Region.
JMU's players were plenty excited to talk about the matchup, which had been a hypothetical until now.
"No one ever thought we'd be here," senior power forward Rayshawn Goins said. "So we just believed and had faith all season long. Now we're here. Lights on."
Goins said the Dukes aren't going to submit to the POTUS's prognostications.
"Indiana," he said when asked if heard who Obama picked. "There's a Cinderella team every year. We're just looking forward to being that. We want to go out and have fun and try to get the win on Friday."
The Hoosiers are 18-0 this year against teams outside the top 50 in RPI. Since the new year, the worst team Indiana has played is Penn State (twice), which has an RPI of 187. The Hoosiers (eighth in RPI) won both Big Ten meetings by 23 points.
JMU has an RPI of 182, and hasn't played a team with an RPI better than 141 since December.
The Dukes will try to draw lessons from the UCLA game, which was played in front of a crowd of 7,554 at Pauley Pavillion. There may be that many IU fans at 13,435-seat UD Arena on Friday, considering Dayton is a scant 166-mile drive from Bloomington, Ind.
"Transition defense," senior Aioune Diouf said was a main learning experience from the UCLA loss. "Because that's how we got beat most of the time, was transition. I know we learned from that, got a lot better. Hopefully we stop [Indiana] now in the open court."
Despite a wide talent gap between the teams, JMU star A.J. Davis said the Dukes just need to be themselves.
"We're going to play our game," Davis said. "We're not going to try to do anything out of character, we're just going to play our game, listen to what Coach draws up on us offense and defense."
Regardless of whether they play their game, they probably will need to play a perfect game.
"Yeah. We do," Nation said. "And I know we're capable of doing that."
The last time JMU played a team from the Big Ten, it lost at Ohio State 72-44 in the opener of the 2009-10 season. The Dukes, however, have won their only NCAA Tournament game against the Big Ten, beating Ohio State 55-48 in 1982. That, coincidentally, was the final collegiate game played by former Buckeye Clark Kellogg, who was the color commentator for Wednesday's JMU game against LIU.
But history - and five-time national champion Indiana has a lot of it - is mainly irrelevant to what takes place in 40 minutes on the court Friday. If JMU has any advantage, it's that the Dukes have played on this court already and have been in Dayton since Monday. They've already won an NCAA Tournament game, and they've built some confidence from doing so.
"This game actually gave us a big, big push," Cooke said. "We didn't want to come in having to play Indiana right at the first game. So this game was a big step for us, especially playing on the court and playing together. We feel good going into Friday."