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Indiana never looked more vulnerable
This was not how the night was supposed to end.
This was Senior Night at Assembly Hall, a night that was supposed to be filled with tear-jerking speeches from Indiana’s three seniors, with mothers holding bouquets and players holding framed jerseys, and most of all with a Hoosiers win in their final home game of the season, securing an outright Big Ten regular-season title and then cutting down the nets.
That last part happened, though not in the way the Indiana faithful would have liked.
Instead, things ended like this: With Ohio State up eight with the seconds melting away, and with plenty of Indiana fans already having left the deflated arena. Indiana’s Cody Zeller tried for a late desperation basket, but Ohio State’s backup point guard, Shannon Scott, picked the 7-footer’s pocket for his fourth steal of the game. Then the Buckeyes toyed with the Hoosiers, dribbling and passing all over the court as Indiana flailed for a foul.
And with that, the sure-thing No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament slipped and fell on its face on its home court, losing 67-58 and taking all those predicted brackets for March and throwing them out the door.
Adding to the surreal scene, Indiana players climbed up a ladder and cut down the nets after the game as part of Senior Night. This was their final home game of the season, and they will finish at least tied for the top of the Big Ten. So, technically, even though they’d just lost, they were still the Big Ten regular-season champions. It was a strange moment.
“We earned the right to cut down the nets,” senior Jordan Hulls said. “We would have liked to have won our last game at Assembly Hall, so it’s bittersweet.”
But it fits right in to this season's strange theme.
As soon as you think you have things figured out this season, things change. Thought Indiana was all but assured of its first outright regular-season title since 1993? Then the Hoosiers lose to Matta’s Buckeyes, the team that’s finished at the top of the Big Ten for three straight seasons.
Thought fast-paced Indiana was one of the few exciting offensive-oriented teams left in college basketball? Then the Hoosiers had their lowest-scoring game of the season, 24 points below their average.
Thought Indiana was the closest thing we had to a dominant team in this season of Top 25 parity? Then, in the course of a week, Minnesota and Ohio State handed us two distinct blueprints for beating the Hoosiers: Use your muscular big man to shove Cody Zeller around the paint on both sides of the floor (Minnesota), or create havoc on defense by guarding the Hoosiers tight and always, always rushing back in transition (Ohio State).
“It’s hard to figure out college basketball this year,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Tuesday night.
Perhaps we just need to throw up our hands and assume there’s no predicting what’s going to happen this season.
At least a dozen teams could win the national title. Indiana’s still one of them; you can consider 14th-ranked Ohio State one, too, after Tuesday night’s win. Heck, there are six teams that could upset Indiana’s primacy and win the Big Ten tournament next week. The only sure thing in college basketball this year is that the Big Ten is the toughest, bloodiest, brutal-est conference in the land, and that every team that makes it out of the Big Ten and into the tourney deserves a gold star.
The Hoosiers never have looked more vulnerable this season than they do now. Losses at Illinois and at Minnesota could be excused, since road games in conference play are always tough. (Ask Michigan about its visit to Happy Valley.) But then a loss at home, on Senior Night, to a team they had manhandled by 13 a month before, makes you wonder: Could this Hoosiers team, which has spent more time atop the AP Top 25 Poll than any other team this season, be less than advertised?
Straight from the tip on Tuesday, Indiana just seemed off. Less than a minute into the game, point guard Yogi Ferrell drove into the paint and ran into a double team, which left Zeller wide open under the basket. It was a perfect opportunity for an arena-shaking alley-oop. But Ferrell lofted a floater that was somewhere between a shot and a lob, and Zeller jumped then backed off the ball, which bounced off the rim and into the hands of Ohio State’s Amir Williams.
That sort of stuff went on all night. Zeller scored 17 points, but it was an underwhelming night for him, with only four rebounds and not very physical play. Victor Oladipo, who has been Indiana’s go-to man in the clutch all year, got in foul trouble early and never found a rhythm. His first shot of the game was when he hit a 3 in the first minute of the second half. Oladipo ended with seven points before he fouled out (compared to a career-high 26 points in their first game against Ohio State).
“They played smarter, and that caught us,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
Where Ohio State played aggressive defense and netted eight steals, Indiana only had two steals. Where Indiana struggled with one of its greatest strengths, its fast-break offense — in which the Hoosiers scored only two points — Ohio State ran a nice transition game of its own, netting 14 points on fast breaks. Where Indiana wanted to run and gun and show why it’s the most efficient offense in the nation, Ohio State controlled the pace of this Big Ten-style game.
Of course, all of this focuses on what Indiana did poorly over what Ohio State did right. Which isn’t fair, because Ohio State looked as good as it has all season, especially when you consider it was on the road against its toughest opponent.
“We’re in the same position as last year,” said Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State’s leading scorer with 18 points. “We came in, we made a big run. Nobody expected we would go to the Final Four last year. We have the potential and the talent to do that. The team to watch out for is Ohio State.”
That might be a bit of irrational post-victory exuberance from a team that a few weeks ago lost to Wisconsin by 26. But there’s some truth to it. They’re limited without a dominant big man, but the Buckeyes have a bunch of guys with Final Four experience, the best on-ball defender in the country in Aaron Craft, and an elite scorer in Thomas. Who knows? If the Buckeyes win the Big Ten tournament, you could make a case that Ohio State is a one-seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We knew we had to create more havoc defensively, challenge shots better (than the first game),” Matta said. “I didn’t think we were overly physical tonight. You just gotta guard them. They’re a great basketball team. When you make mistakes, they kill ya.”
But Ohio State didn’t make many mistakes. So we no longer have a heartwarming ending to the Indiana’s regular season, with the old blueblood winning the conference outright at Senior Night and completing Crean’s turnaround of this program. We no longer have a team in Indiana that seems a hair above the rest of the pack. We no longer have a slam-dunk No. 1 seed leading into March Madness.
How fitting, really.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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