EAST LANSING. Mich -- Is Indiana ready to seize its Big Ten basketball moment?
Now that it's through its most brutal stretch of the season – Tuesday night's 71-66 loss to No. 3 Michigan State left it with a 2-4 conference start – the schedule eases, although given Big Ten power, that's relative. Still, the Hoosiers (12-7) played three games against top-five teams, won one (Wisconsin) and could have beaten Michigan State.
The only top-10 team left on the schedule is No. 10 Iowa, and that's next month in Assembly Hall.
In other words, the postseason begins now.
“This middle stretch can be very good,” guard Yogi Ferrell said. “It will carry on into March and the Big Ten and, hopefully the NCAA tourney.
“We want to make a run, get wins under our belt. It will all come down to energy and toughness. We had that most of this game. We didn't get it done. If we have it the rest of the season, we'll be OK.”
IU is a Rubik's cube of a basketball team. It played so well against Wisconsin and at Michigan State (18-1) yet lost at home to a Northwestern squad with a No. 153 RPI rating.
Youth, it seems, begets drama. No wonder coach Tom Crean never sits.
Nobody in America has missed more layups than Indiana in the last four days – 14 against Northwestern, 15 against Michigan State. Partial credit goes to Michigan State and Northwestern, but the Hoosiers must master the finish-strong concept.
“The shots were right there,” Crean said. “We didn't make shots around the rim. We were getting it where we wanted it. We have to finish. If we finished better the other day, we (wouldn't have lost) the Northwestern game. We've got to continue to work on it. So many times that's what it comes down to.”
Work, Crean added, means “playing through contact.”
“You have to concentrate,” he said. “Get it through. See it all the way through. Extend. Keep your eyes up. That's all that it is.”
Or, as freshman forward Noah Vonleh put it, “We have to keep working and find ways to finish at the rim.”
Vonleh did his part, but he only took eight shots (making six), which would have been fine if he was getting to the line.
He wasn't. He finished 0-for-1.
Still, his 13 points and 13 rebounds produced his eighth double double and likely will mean his seventh Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor.
Ferrell bounced back from his 2-for-14 Northwestern shooting misery and then another slow shooting start Tuesday to nearly will the Hoosiers to victory. They fell behind by 10, then rallied within three before running out of time and frustrating Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“Indiana was the quicker team. I thought they outplayed us. We had no answer for Vonleh. We didn't stop dribble penetration. Indiana just blew by us like they did against Wisconsin,” he said.
If not for the Spartans' late 21-6 run, IU might have duplicated its Badger upset.
It was a stretch that screamed for leadership and toughness.
Well, at least for a made layup.
The Hoosiers couldn't deliver.
But maybe they will the next time.
At least this time they fought. Even without senior Will Sheehey, sidelined with an ankle injury, even facing a 10-point deficit with less than five minutes remaining, they gave themselves a chance at one of America's toughest venues.
If IU had played like this against Northwestern, it would have cruised to a victory.
Still, the Hoosiers found no satisfaction.
“We won't accept this defeat,” Ferrell said. “We played hard, we went down to the wire, but at the end of the day, we didn't get the win. We'll try to use what we did here against one of best teams in the country, carry that through the rest of the season.”
Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris continues to make the Cream and Crimson faithful wonder what might have been. In four career games against IU, the former Indiana Mr. Basketball – and one-time top Hoosier recruiting target – has 90 points, including 50 in two games this season.
He had four points in the first half, 20 in the second. That wasn't by accident.
“At halftime I told the team, in the second half we're going to Gary Harris,” Izzo said. “Does anybody have a problem with that?”
No one did.
Crean, meanwhile, sees hope for the Hoosiers. They have 12 games left to pad their postseason resume, and they hope to make the most of them.
“We have two-thirds of the Big Ten still in front of us. We have to build our skill level," he said. "This league shows how powerful it is. We've been right in the middle of that. We want to continue to be in that. I'm confident we'll continue to improve and learn.”
In other words, the postseason begins now.