WASHINGTON -- One year later, you can see it. You can sense it. You can hear it -- in their voices.
The confidence from one Sweet 16 to the next is so glaringly obvious with these Indiana Hoosiers.
A year ago in Atlanta, while watching this team against Kentucky, it was as if they were the newbies in school. They were trying to get everyone to notice but still sheepishly shy and unaware of what was to come.
Kentucky won a high-scoring game. Indiana played well, but the Hoosiers weren’t ready for the moment.
They are now.
“We were excited for the opportunity," Indiana senior Jordan Hulls said. “It was a new experience for us. This year, we’ve got higher expectations for ourselves and have high standards."
Indiana has embraced being the top seed. The Hoosiers welcomed the attention on day one. They'll welcome it again Thursday night against Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
This isn’t an Indiana team loaded with can’t-miss NBA talent like last season’s Kentucky squad. Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller are lottery picks, but neither was a lock to be in that category when he arrived at Indiana.
They've had no issue with other coaching stars being around the team, from Tom Crean’s brother-in-law (the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh) being at a practice to his Super Bowl-winning brother-in-law (Ravens coach John Harbaugh) taking away the media's attention in the hallway of the Verizon Center on Wednesday afternoon.
“We’ve embraced it," Oladipo said. “It’s fun. It’s fun being the hunted. And it was fun being the underdog. At the same time we know what we’ve got to do at a high level and apply that to every game we play."
The Hoosiers haven’t lost two games in a row all season. They haven’t looked bad in any game, save maybe a home loss to Ohio State and the two Wisconsin games in which they struggled to score. Still, Indiana has never been out of a game.
“This is different," Christian Watford said. “Last year, we had already played the team one time and knew what we were going to do and knew we would be in a dogfight. I feel like this is a confident group this time around and we’re not just satisfied to be here."
But, much like Kentucky, Syracuse is a dicey opponent for Indiana. The Orange may not be as intimidating as the Wildcats were a year ago, but the combination of the unknown factor of the zone defense, their ability to make 3s and frustrate an opponent with their length could cause problems.
Indiana squeezed out a win over Temple in the round of 32 with an Oladipo 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining.
Syracuse impressed in the first two rounds, crushing Montana and then handling Cal in San Jose, Calif.
The Orange are familiar with the Verizon Center -- and figure to have a semi-home-court advantage with their passionate fan base here.
“Our offense has been flowing, and the defense is working hard," Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “We’re not breaking down on the defensive end. We’re moving the ball, and we’re patient. If we do things, we’ll be fine."
Much like the Hoosiers, the Orange are welcoming their role as an underdog. But they know -- everyone knows -- this isn't a No. 1- vs. No. 9-seed matchup. Syracuse has a chance to win this bracket and play in Atlanta if it performs like it has for the past two weeks, save for the second half against Louisville in the Big East tournament title game.
“We like it because it does take some pressure off our back," Carter-Williams said. “We’re the underdog but at the same time we don’t feel like the underdog. We think we’re one of the best teams in the country. We’ve got great players, veteran players [who] have helped us down the stretch."
This is a rematch of the 1987 NCAA title game in name only. Indiana and Syracuse were Goliaths in 1987. They have been two of the nation's top-10 teams for most of this season, but they're not dominant. Indiana is the favorite, but it's not an overwhelming one -- which makes this round of 16 game an intriguing matchup.