DAYTON, Ohio — Ah, opening night. Always special for Broadway productions . . . blockbuster movies . . . the NCAA tournament. Especially this year, because March sounded like March again — for a Texas Southern team that has a lot of reasons to be liked, and an Indiana team aiming to revive an aura.
The empty seats and low-voltage pandemic ambience of 2021 were history. There were crowds and bands and cheerleaders and noise when Texas Southern pulled away late to put away Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 76-67.
“It was electrifying. It’s the kind of stuff we missed last year,” Texas Southern’s John Walker III was saying afterward. “This year made you feel like it’s the biggest sports show on Earth.”
Added his teammate Bryson Etienne, after scoring 21 points, “Now, since everybody’s in the gym, you’ve got the cheerleaders and band, it’s an experience we’ve all dreamt of.”
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There were roars from the heavily tilted Indiana audience as Trayce Jackson-Davis continued his March push that began last week in the conference tournament. This time, 29 points in a 66-58 Indiana victory over Wyoming.
“It was honestly surreal,” Jackson-Davis said. “I’ve always dreamed about playing in this tournament.”
How much can you learn on opening night?
We learned the Indiana surge continues. The Big Ten grind did not take so much out of the Hoosiers that they couldn’t put a little muscle on Wyoming, forcing 19 turnovers and outscoring the Cowboys 46-26 in the paint, 16-0 on fast break points and 16-6 in second-chance points. They had rough moments but still played like a team on a mission, which they are.
This was Indiana’s first NCAA tournament game in six seasons. The Hoosiers have been to one Elite Eight in 28 years. Hardly a proper resume for one of the sport’s A-listers. They are intent to change that, intent to refurbish their stature, so the next time they beat Illinois and Michigan one week, they won’t be sent to the First Four the next.
“We’re all going to play with a chip on our shoulder, honestly,” Xavier Johnson had said on Monday.
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Restoration of Indiana’s hallowed name is at the top of Mike Woodson’s to-do list in his first season. “Coach Woodson to me has just brought the light,” Jackson-Davis said. “I feel like Indiana basketball has been in darkness for so long now.”
But not Tuesday night. Wyoming got a taste of the harsh ways of the Big Ten, especially the body-to-body defense. The Cowboys’ leading scorers — Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado — had 15 field goals. And 15 turnovers. “Now they know what it feels like to play a Big Ten team,” Wyoming coach Jeff Linder said.
And when Indiana needed an extra boost for the occasion, there was Jordan Geronimo off the bench with his 3.9 scoring average. He contributed 15 points and seven rebounds and maybe Indiana doesn’t win without him. “I call it playoff basketball, tournament play,” Woodson said, recalling his NBA days. “You find a guy that steps up for you. And he was the guy tonight.”
When the game ended, Indiana had a first-round date against Saint Mary’s in Portland — 2,300 miles away — in under 44 hours. The charter flight was waiting at the Dayton airport. The Hoosiers would be in the air in the wee hours. Welcome to the First Four. “We still gotta play the game,” Woodson said. “Can’t run from it.”
Meanwhile, the special chemistry of Texas Southern is very easy to admire. The Tigers will get Kansas Thursday, so odds are they’ll be heading home soon. But look how they got this far.
Everybody plays, everybody contributes, nobody worries about personal numbers. There were 10 Tigers on the floor in the first 10 minutes Tuesday. Texas Southern got 55 points off the bench including its top three scorers — Etienne, Walker with 16 and PJ Henry with 14.
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They might start against Kansas Thursday. Who knows? Coach Johnny Jones has used 18 different lineups this season. Because of that, nobody came into Tuesday averaging double figures. Nobody built up showy individual stats, which is how Texas Southern could win the SWAC and not have a single player named to the first or second all-league team. But it created a purpose that allowed the Tigers to survive an 0-7 start and then go into Gainesville and shock Florida.
“It cut down on the pouting and guessing and all the other stuff. I think as a unit it helped them become even closer,” Jones said. “At the end of the day I’m glad I’ve got a great group of guys who are focused on the big picture.
“They weren’t worried about starting anymore. It was about the minutes played and the impact they could have on the team when they get in.”
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“I think the biggest thing with that is it helps everybody with just being humble, just keep our humility in check,” Walker said. “Nobody gets too high or too low. Everybody knows we have one job to do.”
And they learned to face anything with a schedule that began with 11 consecutive road games. They didn’t play at home until Jan. 8. By the way, Tuesday was Texas Southern’s third win the past four NCAA tournaments. “I think that speaks volumes for us and the tradition we’re trying to build there,” Jones said. “It’s no fluke.”
But about having to now play Kansas.
“We’re men just like them. We put our shoes on like them, pants, shirt,” Etienne said. “It’s March Madness, so madness can happen.”
And with a crowd again, too. Good opening night, for Indiana, for Texas Southern, for the tournament that has its thunder back. And now the show goes on.