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COLUMN

Indiana fans must adopt NCAA tourney team

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1.

UCLA's Alford, Tennessee's Martin offer nostalgia connection

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 4:17 am

Here we are, brackets in hand and March Madness about to fill our flat screens, and the state of Indiana has nothing.

No Indiana University, no Purdue, no Butler, no Notre Dame and no (but oh-so-close) IPFW in the field of 68.

What's an Indiana native to do? Two things:

1. Fill out an emotion-free bracket, without your heart pulling on you to pick your favorite team to go to the Sweet 16.

2. Adopt an alternative team as your quasi-sentimental favorite.

Step 1 should be kind of fun, actually. You can analyze it dispassionately and not worry about jinxing your team by picking against them. Go ahead and pick the team of your hunch (mine is Arizona) and let it rip. You can even pick Kentucky to win a couple if you want, knowing this time it won't cause the Indiana Hoosiers to lose via the fan karma connection.

Step 2 depends on your allegiances.

On a strictly Indiana or Purdue alumni basis, there's a coach for each available for your nostalgic viewing pleasure and rooting interest.

Former IU golden boy Steve Alford has his UCLA Bruins in as the fourth seed in the South Region after knocking off Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game.

Meanwhile, one-time Purdue long-range sniper Cuonzo Martin and the Tennessee Volunteers are heading to play Iowa in the (don't-call it a) play-in game.

Alford looks to have the better chance. His Bruins were 26-8 and got hot during the conference tournament. I realize that IU fans have some mixed emotions about Alford. They loved him as a player, from that deadly free-throw routine to the never-moving hair to his strong play in leading the Hoosiers to their last NCAA championship in 1987. (Don't look now, but it's been 27 years.)

On the other hand, Alford's coaching journey over the past few years has produced some distance from his home state. He went from Iowa to New Mexico State to UCLA, moving further and further away from Indiana, both emotionally and geographically. But his face is more than familiar enough for Hoosier fans, although rooting for UCLA might feel a tad too disloyal. Plus, there's always the well-founded hunch that Alford's team will be upset in the first round of the tournament.

Maybe IU fans would prefer former Hoosiers coach Mike Davis, now in the tourney with Texas Southern? Maybe not.

For Purdue fans, Martin offers an easier surrogate team. He needed a strong finish this season, his third at Tennessee, to earn an NCAA berth and some suggest that might not even be enough to save his job moving forward. Some Tennessee fans say he needs an NCAA win or two. Some Tennessee fans are delusional about where their program fits in the hoops hierarchy, too.

Martin's expressions on the bench will remind Purdue fans of the intensity he displayed as a Boilermaker. His team thrives on the kind of defensive pride and togetherness that marked the best Purdue squads when Martin played for Gene Keady. Since he was an assistant with Matt Painter, he has a more recent connection with Purdue than Alford does with Indiana.

Here's the rub, though: It's possible, maybe likely, that Iowa will beat Tennessee and Martin won't even be in the field of 64, which is the field most people consider the “real” tournament bracket.

Here's an alternative for both Alford and Martin that will allow fans to have some Indiana flavor, some close to home flavor and even some Fort Wayne flavor: Root for Michigan State.

First of all, the Spartans are darn good and could go to the Final Four, which they tend to do on a fairly regular basis. They have a Fort Wayne player in Russell Byrd off the bench and an Indiana native (Indianapolis) star in Gary Harris. They have Tom Izzo at the helm, and Izzo has visited Fort Wayne many times, both to recruit and to help with charity events.

And here's the extra selling point: Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife was a player at IU and a coach at IPFW, so he kind of has a connection to Purdue (the P in IPFW), too.

OK, so that's a really thin Purdue connection. What can I say? When it comes to March Madness this year, thin connections are all that's left for those of us born, raised and frustrated in Indiana.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.