For the first 10 minutes, Indiana played Wisconsin evenly, fighting for lose balls and rebounds, moving with purpose offensively, and taking shots with confidence. Then, something changed. Minutes 51 to 60 could not have been any different than the first 50 minutes Indiana played in this 2017 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament. And that was all it took for Wisconsin to separate by the six or eight points that the Hoosiers can never overcome when tangling with the Badgers.
With 10 minutes to play in the first half, the Hoosiers held a 20-16 lead, built upon the foundation laid by two three-point field goals by both Robert Johnson and James Blackmon, Jr. From that point forward, however, Indiana was outscored 54-40 en route to a 70-60 loss that definitively ends their season (unless they accept a bid to the NIT).
For the Badgers, the story was efficiency. Wisconsin was 10-of-22 from three on the night, and shot a whopping 47.4% from the field in total. They also only turned the ball over seven times and slowly but surely extended their lead to bury Indiana.
The Hoosiers made a few shots to draw within four points with one minute to play. But fittingly, the season-ending loss was sealed by a defensive breakdown followed by a live ball turnover.
The story for Indiana could be told a number of ways. You could talk about Thomas Bryant playing like an overgrown middle schooler who has yet to learn how to control his limbs and maintain his balance. And if Bryant is the story, you could talk about Nigel Hayes, who lives in Bryant’s head. Bryant finished with just two points and three rebounds.
You could talk about Josh Newkirk, who perhaps has been Indiana’s best and most consistent player down the stretch this season, being a complete no-show, scoring just two points on 1-of-7 shooting. You could talk about all the shots missed at the rim, the untimely turnovers, and lack of composure in the half-court.
But you would probably be overlooking the thing that seemed glaringly obvious: this team seemed like they were ready to be done. It was as if the reason the switch flipped with 10 minutes to go in the first half was because they looked around, remembered that they don’t really like each other, and realized that if they kept playing the way they had, this season might last a day longer, or more. They certainly played that way after the under-16 timeout in the 2nd half.
There is visual evidence to support this storyline as well. Even when the Hoosiers were playing well early on, they were visibly joyless. There were the times when De’Ron Davis and Newkirk left the game with injuries and not a single teammate gave them a pat on the rear end or to ask if they were okay. There was the lazy defense when Wisconsin had an eight point lead with eight minutes left, which allowed the lead to extend to 15 with a minute.
Sure, they played hard for a minute or so after that to cut the deficit back down to 10. But at that point, there was no risk of having to practice again. No risk for Blackmon and Bryant of having to put on the Indiana uniform again.
While the question about Indiana’s NCAA tournament hopes was answered today, there are many others looming. In the immediate future, the questions is will the Hoosiers accept an NIT bid?
Zach Osterman says they will.
For everyone asking, Indiana WILL participate in the NIT. That was always the plan. Nothing has changed. #iubb— Zach Osterman (@ZachOsterman) March 11, 2017
Our take on it?
if your players want to play, go play https://t.co/mus79yZA1R— CHEESE DISLIKERS (@crimsonquarry) March 11, 2017
But really, did that team that played the final 30 minutes tonight look like a group that wants to play another minute together?
When the season is officially done, the questions become far more important. Will Blackmon and Bryant leave Indiana despite bright NBA futures? Will Anunoby forego risking another collegiate injury and enter the draft while teams still see upside and potential? And of course, there’s the ultimate question — will Tom Crean be the head coach in 2017-2018?
And if the answers to any of those questions involve departures, the more questions arise, such as who replaces Blackmon, Bryant, and Anunoby with a weak bench and an unimpressive recruiting class headed to Bloomington? If Crean leaves, how many players decide to transfer? If Crean is gone, who’s the next head coach?
As for now, this miserable, joyless, no good season has come to a merciful end. And in the end, all this team accomplished was leaving the Indiana men’s basketball program surrounded by the most uncertainty its faced in nine years.