SIOUX CITY, Iowa – For all of the basketball fans throughout this state that have lamented over the past week about not having a Hoosier-based team to cheer on in the NCAA Tournament, I present to you the Crossroads League.
The NAIA conference put on a display of hoops dominance Tuesday that should reverberate throughout the nation and also dispute the myth that this state and its ability to play the best sport ever invented is on the downswing.
Tuesday's titles started with Indiana Wesleyan claiming the NAIA Division II men's national tournament championship with a 10-point win over Midlands (Neb.) near Branson, Mo., followed by Saint Francis beating College of the Ozarks (Mo.) 75-68 several hundred miles to the north along the Missouri River and earning the women's crown a few minutes later.
“I think the best-kept secret in the state of Indiana is small-college basketball,” Wildcats coach Greg Tonagel said. “There is a misperception out there that if you don't go (NCAA Division I), then you're not playing good basketball. There are a lot of Crossroads League teams that could beat a lot of lower-level Division I teams, and a lot of those teams are filled with Indiana kids.”
The fact that this state doesn't have a team in the NCAA Tournament this month has a lot more to do with the coaching done this season at the most prominent institutions (I'm giving Butler's Brandon Miller a pass, as he tried to guide his Horizon League roster through a Big East schedule), than it does due to a dearth of basketball ability on the part of the Hoosier youth. Sunday's Big Ten Tournament championship game was evidence of that.
Though Michigan State and Michigan were battling for the tournament title, the game had a large Indiana flavor to it, as nine Indiana natives were on the two teams' rosters.
And the abundance of Indiana talent – despite what occurred at Indiana, Purdue, Butler and Notre Dame this season - isn't limited to just the men's side of the sport.
“There are so many good players in our state,” Cougars coach Gary Andrews said after guiding his team, which is filled with Indiana natives, to a perfect 38-0 record. “I'm proud of Indiana Wesleyan (men) for being able to win that. And (2013 women's national champion) Indiana Wesleyan and Huntington both came (to the women's tournament) and won a game. There's really good basketball in the men's and women's sides.”
Guiding a team to a perfect season wasn't a first for Andrews. He led Bishop Luers to three IHSAA state championships (1999, 2000, 2001), with the last team finishing 28-0. The similarities between the two teams, even at the college level, is that Andrews has achieved incredible success not just with Indiana players, but with Fort Wayne-area players specifically.
Of the 17 players on the Cougars' championship team, 12 are from the Fort Wayne area.
“There are so many good players in the programs around northeast Indiana,” Andrews said, “there are always good teams and there are always good players. When I got the Saint Francis job, I thought ' Hey, let's get the best players from our area.' Maybe sprinkle in a girl from Kokomo or someplace like that, but our base is this area and it's been pretty successful.”
At Indiana Wesleyan, Tonagel has built a national power by selling “the culture” of the program to mostly Indiana-based players, one of which (senior guard Jordan Weidner, Danville High School) was named the national tournament's Most Valuable Player Tuesday.
“Jordan was Player of the Year in the Crossroads League. He was (NAIA) tournament MVP,” Tonagel said. “I could name you five Division I schools that thought that he was just a tad short or he didn't jump high enough or he wasn't fast enough. But they didn't measure his heart or his skill level.”
That last quote should resonate with Purdue and Indiana fans in particular.
“Heart and skill can win you games,” Tonagel continued. “There is a 40 percent transfer rate because people put too much emphasis on athletic ability, length and all of those things. At the end of the day, what wins you basketball games are heart, hustle and toughness.”
All of those traits can be found in abundance in a gym near you.