OPINION: Maybe this time IU men’s basketball secured its spot in the NCAA Tournament

Trayce Jackson-Davis boxes out Kyle Young on Ohio State

Freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis boxes out Ohio State forward Kyle Young during an IU free throw attempt Feb. 1 at Value City Arena. Jackson-Davis led the Hoosiers over the Gophers on Feb. 19 in Minneapolis with 27 of IU’s 68 points. (SARAH ZYGMUNTOWSKI)

After beating Minnesota 68-56 on Thursday in Minneapolis, IU brought its record to 17-9. For the fourth time this season, I’ve thought the team looked deserving of an NCAA Tournament appearance. Every other time I was confident that the team had finally turned a corner and figured out its version of winning basketball. Each time I was wrong.

Every time I’ve thought the Hoosiers had put themselves safely in the tournament, they seemed to take that as a challenge to play as poorly as possible the next game.

The first time I was naive to think a win over then-ranked No. 11 Ohio State on Jan. 11 was the moment. I failed to realize the roars of the crowd within Assembly Hall were holding the team together. I was convinced the Hoosiers’ strong play would translate on the road. Little did I know that IU would win only one of its next four road games.

The New Year’s hangover that cost IU a win against Arkansas at home on Dec. 29 and almost ruined its season following a narrow win over Northwestern was behind them. Against Ohio State, Junior center Joey Brunk looked like he was becoming an impact player as he single-handedly held star junior Kaleb Wesson to only 11 points.

I was premature with that call.

Two weeks later, IU knocked off then-ranked No. 11 Michigan State who at the time was a real national champion contender. Everything clicked as the Hoosiers played with the suffocating intensity on defense and dominated the paint with freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis.

IU followed up the performance with an impressive one-point loss to then-No. 17 Maryland, who is currently in first place in the Big Ten, before beginning to freefall out of the sky.

In IU’s next three games against Penn State, Ohio State and Purdue, the team lost by a combined 36 points, a number that would be even worse if IU didn’t go on a meaningless 5-0 run to end the Ohio State game.

It wouldn’t take long to get another quality win as IU dominated then-ranked No. 21 Iowa, climbing itself out of the pit it lay in.

Michigan put a damper on the party, defeating IU at the Crisler Center on Feb. 16, but shockingly the team responded.

IU fought hard against a middling Minnesota team as it dedicated itself to getting Jackson-Davis the ball and dominating in the post.

IU head coach Archie Miller called out Jackson-Davis following the team’s loss at Michigan, saying he “had to play harder” after scoring five points on three shots. Against the Golden Gophers, the talented freshman took just over 11 minutes to score 10 points while also grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds, powering his way to his eighth double-double of the season.

IU had production throughout the lineup against Minnesota, something it has often missed in games away from Assembly Hall. Sophomore forward Race Thompson was a point shy of a double-double while playing in front of a hometown crowd, including his father Darrell Thompson, who played running back at Minnesota and is the football team’s all-time leading rusher.

Sophomore guard Rob Phinisee and junior guard Al Durham combined for 10 assists as the Hoosiers played one of their most complete games all season.

The magic number is twenty wins, and the team has five games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament beginning March. 11. If IU reaches that total, it should make the NCAA Tournament. If not, the team is once again holding its breath on Selection Sunday.

I’ve said it before and I’ve been wrong, but this time feels different. With IU’s remaining schedule, the team has appeared to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully it doesn’t lose it this time on its way to the big dance.