It's been 14 years since Indiana last appeared in the Elite Eight. That wouldn't be considered that bad for some schools, but it isn't good enough for a program with the reputation Indiana has. Since making the NCAA Finals in 2002, the Hoosiers have made the NCAA Tournament eight times and the Sweet Sixteen three times. While this season (27-7 record, regular season Big Ten champs) has largely been a positive, the Hoosiers haven't quite gotten back to their ways of the past.
Which, of course, is why Friday's game against North Carolina is so important for Indiana's program. A win over the top-seeded Tar Heels would not only be an upset and put the Hoosiers one win away from the FInal Four, but would also be huge for the legacies of coach Tom Crean and the current seniors.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's make one thing clear. A loss on Friday doesn't make Indiana's season a failure. The Hoosiers entered 2015-'16 with good but somewhat unclear expectations in what was regarded to be an extremely strong conference. Coming off of a disappointing season in which they lost in the first round of the tournament, it was hard to predict how good the Hoosiers would be this season. And finishing first in the conference in the regular season and beating a very talented Kentucky team to reach the Sweet Sixteen definitely make this season worth something.
Still, no team reaches the Sweet Sixteen without having aspirations for something greater, and Indiana definitely has the talent to keep moving on. After all, the only thing that pushed the Hoosiers down to a five-seed in the tournament was their disappointing loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. A decent run easily bumps them up a few seeds and puts them in a different position in the big dance. But Indiana can't change where it is now. While North Carolina is rightfully favored in this contest, it wouldn't be shocking if the Hoosiers find a way to win. This is March Madness.
While beating the Tar Heels would mean a lot for Indiana's players and fans, it would be extra special for Crean. The coach struggled through incredibly frustrating seasons his first three years in Bloomington, and still gets plenty of criticism despite getting the program back on track. And yes, some of the criticism has been warranted. You can't coach at a school like Indiana and expect fans to be happy with just making the NCAA Tournament. And although it will ultimately take a title for Crean to completely win over the Hoosiers faithful, an appearance in the Elite Eight will be a big step forward.
Then of course, there's Indiana's players. Reaching the Elite Eight would obviously be huge for all of them, but it might mean the most to Yogi Ferrell. Over the past four years, the 6'1" point guard has done enough to be considered one of the best players in Indiana history. The only thing missing from his resume is a Final Four appearance (and championship) and beating North Carolina will get him one step closer.
The Hoosiers won't be considered choke-artists if they lose this game, but winning would be extremely important to the program. Its an opportunity they won't want to let slip away.