BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana center Mackenzie Holmes spent a whole year working so she could take one more shot at an NCAA championship.
She committed herself to recovering fully from the left knee injury that limited her mobility and productivity last March when the Hoosiers fell short of their title dreams. She promised to come back a better, stronger player.
After leading the Hoosiers through an unforgettable season, Holmes finally gets her chance to show everyone she's happy, healthy, and capable of helping Indiana meet the lofty expectations that come with being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it’s really cool to see different teams getting those one-seeds and just being in those top-10, top-five teams because in years past, it’s pretty consistently been the same teams,” Holmes said after the pairings were announced Sunday. “So to see how much the game has grown and all these different teams up there has been really cool.”
Indiana is one of this year's intriguing top-line newcomers and Holmes, of course, is a big reason the Hoosiers are viewed as a legitimate championship contender.
Since arriving on campus in 2019-20, the 6-foot-3 Maine native has been a double-digit scorer, a solid rebounder, and a team-first player. As Holmes fine-tuned her all-around skills, coach Teri Moren increasingly structured her offense to run through the post.
Not surprisingly, Indiana's ascent tracked perfectly with Holmes’ improvements.
The Hoosiers jumped from a 10th-place conference finish in 2018-19 to fourth in Holmes' first college season. When Holmes became a full-time starter in Year 2, Indiana finished second in the Big Ten and advanced to the Elite Eight. Last season, with Holmes hobbled, the Hoosiers slipped to a fourth-place conference and lost in the regional semifinals.
But in what has undoubtedly been the best of her career, Holmes responded by leading Indiana to unprecedented heights for one obvious reason. She's healthy.
“I’m not who I was when I came back from my surgery last season,” Holmes said after a February victory. “I learned from it, and I think I’m better because of it.”
Holmes was named a first-team AP All-American on Wednesday. She'd already earned her third straight all-conference selection, made her second appearance on the league's all-defensive team, and was selected as the Big Ten's player of the year.
She starts postseason play ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring with a career-best 22.3 points per game, second nationally in field goal percentage at 68.8%, and second in the Big Ten with 1.9 blocks.
Holmes and her teammates never measured success by individual stat lines and that perspective has helped them produce the best season in school history.
Indiana (27-3) broke the program record for overall wins and tied the mark for conference wins (16). It finished the season ranked a program-best No. 2, set four new single-game home attendance marks capped by the first-ever Assembly Hall sellout as the Hoosiers celebrated their first regular-season conference crown since 1982-83.
“A lot of the credit goes to Grace (Berger) and coach Moren and Mac, they built this program,” said Sydney Parrish, Indiana's 2020 Indiana Miss Basketball who transferred back to her home state from Oregon before this season. “They're the ones that did this. They built it from the bottom, a program that wasn't much at the start.”
They're not finished, either.
On Saturday, Indiana hosts NCAA tourney games for the second straight season and the second time in school history. They'll face either Tennessee Tech (22-9) or Monmouth (18-15), who meet in Thursday's play-in game. Eighth-seeded Oklahoma State (21-11) and ninth-seeded Miami (19-12) meet in Saturday's second game.
Could all of this have happened last season had Holmes not needed midseason surgery?
“Once Mac got hurt, she wasn’t quite 100%,” Moren said last fall. “So I think in retrospect when we look back at what could have been different — if Mac would have been 100% — could we have won a Big Ten championship? I think we could have.”
The Hoosiers have never been big on reflection and they're not about to start now as they step into the national spotlight with Holmes and Berger, the scrappy fifth-year guard, playing the leading roles.
Instead, Indiana intends to rely on its nimble centerpiece as long as possible.
“I know there are a lot of good post (players) in the country, but there’s none better than the one that lives in Bloomington right now," Purdue coach Katie Gearlds said. "If they stay healthy, if they stay out of foul trouble, there’s a good chance we see this team in Dallas.”