Dayton welcomes back the First Four after three years away due to COVID-19. Opening night of the gateway to March Madness returns with a bang, featuring one of the 2021-22 season's surprise teams and a true blue-blood program coming off some impressive wins in its conference tournament.
Wyoming endured a sharp downturn in recent years, including seasons of just eight and nine wins. The Cowboys' rebound to 25-8 and contention in a tough Mountain West Conference culminates in the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015.
Despite being one of the most decorated programs in college basketball history, Indiana's First Four appearance snaps a similar Tournament drought dating back to 2016. The Hoosiers were set to make the field in 2020 before the pandemic forced its cancellation, so this year's bubble bid makes up for some lost time.
First Four: No. 12 Indiana Hoosiers (20-13) vs. No. 12 Wyoming Cowboys (25-8)
Time: Tuesday, March 15 at 9:10 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: UD Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Spread: Indiana -4
Keys for Indiana
Indiana played its way into the field of 68 with outstanding performances against Michigan and Illinois, two teams with star big men. The Hoosiers didn't shut down either Michigan's Hunter Dickinson or Illinois' Kofi Cockburn — Dickinson went for 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the Big Ten Tournament matchup, while Cockburn went for 23 points — but they didn't dominate the IU bigs.
Trayce Jackson-Davis shot 9-of-13 against Illinois for 21 points, shot 10-of-17 against Michigan for 24 points, and grabbed seven and eight rebounds in the two wins. Race Thompson added seven rebounds against Illinois. Their continued play is central to IU's March prospects, starting against a Wyoming bunch that thrives attacking the interior.
The Cowboys rank No. 32 nationally in two-point field-goal shooting percentage at 54.5, and have proven adept at getting to the foul line. More than 20 percent of Wyoming's points come at the stripe. Jackson-Davis and Thompson face challenges inside from Graham Ike, who's a force on the boards and excellent at drawing fouls.
Likewise, Hunter Maldonado's slashing to the rim produces a whopping 53.6 free-throw rating per KenPom.com. Protecting the rim while staying out of foul trouble is vital, but IU's been solid at both. The Hoosiers rank top 10 nationally in opponent two-point shooting percentage at 43.4.
Keys for Wyoming
The 2022 NCAA Tournament marks the 35th anniversary of Fennis Dembo leading Wyoming on a Sweet 16 run that included a win over blue-blood UCLA. First Four participants have a history of advancing deep in March — like UCLA, which made last season's Final Four — and this Cowboys squad has the pieces to create a new chapter in program history 35 years after Dembo and Co.
If anyone's poised to be a Dazzling Dude in this year's Dance, check out Maldonado. The Wyoming wing is a versatile scorer and something of a throwback. As the game's become more reliant on perimeter players shooting 3-pointers, Maldonado attacks aggressively to inside looks.
His penetration leads to outside shooting opportunities for teammates, including 40.1 percent 3-point shooter Drake Jeffries. Maldonado, who ranks in the nation's top 10 for assist rate, also works well in tandem with Ike. If Maldonado can get loose and create openings against the Indiana defense, Wyoming will advance.
Indiana's up-and-down play all season left it on the bubble, barely squeaking into the Big Dance. But with the Hoosiers' talent and length — both starting with NBA prospect Jackson-Davis — plus the explosive potential in Xavier Johnson, this team could make a second-weekend run.
The same is true of Wyoming. The Cowboys' unselfish ball movement, aggressive perimeter defense, and variety of playmakers could be tailored for a Sweet 16 appearance.
This First Four matchup has coin-flip potential, but look for Maldonado to have a breakout performance on the national stage.