BLOOMINGTON – Basketball mediocrity is clinched, and that's a shame.
We're well into March and Indiana still hasn't figured out how to play to its potential and achieve the consistency necessary for success.
It couldn't find Nebraska's 6-foot-10 Walter Pitchford, for goodness sakes.
How is that possible?
“That baffles my mind,” coach Tom Crean said.
Youth remains the never ending excuse. So is the brutal truth of parity, and the Hoosiers aren't alone in that. Look at Kentucky, Purdue or even Duke (losing to mediocre Wake Forest).
“We just couldn't get our mojo,” guard Yogi Ferrell added.
At least the Hoosiers (17-13) did Senior Night right. There is that.
In the bittersweet aftermath of Wednesday night's 70-60 loss to Nebraska, senior Will Sheehey delivered a speech long on heart, short on words.
“I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I have the best teammates, the best coaches and the best family, and I play at the best university in the world,” he said.
Crean, facing again the tough task of Senior Night accolades from Senior Night defeat (remember Ohio State last year?), praised Sheehey and the other seniors – Evan Gordon, Jeff Howard and Taylor Wayer.
He said Wayer “is a model for how to overcome things.” He said Howard “is why you put expectations on people no matter their ranking” and that Howard “figured out how good he could be.” He called Gordon “an outstanding person” and said that “we had high expectations for him and will continue to push him till the last day he's here.”
Finally, he said Sheehey has “great character” and is a “rare person.” He said, “It's our privilege to have him here with us.”
Privilege didn't produce victory. Indiana was swept by a Nebraska team making a big push toward NCAA tourney participation. In a game it had to win, the Cornhuskers (18-11) delivered, in part because Pitchford got free for 17 points, including 3-for-4 three-point shooting highlighted by a long-range dagger with 1:55 left and the Hoosiers down by one.
Pitchford, by the way, ranks among the Big Ten's best three-point shooters. The Hoosiers were instructed not to leave him. And then, while switching, they did.
“You can't make a mistake late you haven't made the whole game,” Crean said.
With NCAA tourney at-large possibilities in play, with nine minutes left in a tie game, with a supportive Assembly Hall crowd and Senior Night emotion, the Hoosiers faded.
Did happen – again.
With a regular-season finale at Big Ten champion Michigan on Saturday, and then next week's Big Ten tourney in Indianapolis, Sheehey wasn't ready to concede.
“We've got to make sure we go down swinging. This might have been my last home game, but it's not my last game. ... Just because we lost one game doesn't mean we're not going to play the next game as hard as we can. We've got to play like we know we can. We still have a shot at this thing.”
The record and RPI (No. 53 when the NCAA takes 36 at-large teams) say differently.
“We've got to grow up in a hurry,” Crean said.
When it mattered most, IU's offense turned to the stand-around-and-shoot-blanks mode that has so often marked this season. It didn't cut through the middle, didn't set screens, didn't move the ball, didn't make the Cornhuskers pay for their zone.
At least there wasn't a repeat of the turnover frenzy we've seen too many times. The Hoosiers only committed 10, which is five fewer than their average.
Part of IU's struggles was the result of not having forward Noah Vonleh for the second straight game because of an inflamed left foot. Crean said that wasn't decided until “the end of walk-through.”
“So we had to regroup,” he said. “We had to change.”
Against Ohio State, Vonleh's replacements were major factors. Against Nebraska, they were less so, although freshman Devin Davis showed promise with seven points and three rebounds despite giving up substantial size and weight.
“He was straight warrior,” Crean said.
In the end, defense let the Hoosiers down. Some of it was because there was no Vonleh to protect the rim, some because they couldn't get the stops a good team – an NCAA tourney-quality team – gets.
“We had a couple of defensive mistakes at crucial times that defies imagination,” Crean said, “but it happens. Now we've got to regroup and get ready to play Michigan.”
Saturday could have been a game with huge postseason stakes.
Now, well, mediocrity has a price.