INDIANAPOLIS – The doubters won.
Isn't that a heck of a thing?
Those that figured Indiana would submit against Illinois in Thursday's Big Ten opener figured right.
Yes, the 64-54 defeat burns. It had better.
“It's hard,” senior guard Evan Gordon said. “We had our goals set high. We wanted to make a run in this tournament, win it all and prove all the doubters wrong and advance.”
He paused. In the chaos of an open Bankers Life Fieldhouse locker room, reflection had made the spotlight.
“It came to a close very quickly.”
With basically two minutes left, IU trailed by one. In just over a minute, the deficit was 10.
Good teams, tough-minded teams, don't let that happen.
Teams like Illinois (19-13), for instance.
But as these last three months have shown, this is not a good Cream and Crimson team. Not to Indiana standards, anyway.
Few teams waste more opportunities than the Hoosiers (17-15), who continue to make beyond-belief turnovers, whether it's passes into the void or goal tending on shots that weren't close to going in.
The run-oriented Hoosier offense often resembles a myth in half-court grinds. Coach Tom Crean talks about constant ball movement, body movement, ball reversal and cuts to the rim.
In theory that's what it is.
In theory – say, when you have good shooters – it works.
In this Hoosier reality, the offense is basically four guys standing on the perimeter, one guy standing in the paint, until somebody forces a drive or a jumper.
Yes, good outside shooters would help, but the Hoosiers don't have them. What they do have struggles to work against quality teams that won't let them run.
Teams like Illinois, for instance.
Crean talks about “intent,” which is basically a code word for discipline and toughness.
“It covers a lot of things,” he said. “It covers your competitiveness, your awareness, your grit, your will in getting stops.”
In this Hoosier ending, it covered nothing.
That's a shame.
“We have to get ready for the NIT,” Gordon said.
That assumes there will be a NIT. The Hoosiers are a lock for nothing but amazing mistakes.
That is not a positive.
“At some point,” Crean said, “you have to grow over when things aren't going right. You have to overcome it.”
The Hoosiers don't. It has become their unwanted mantra. They drive into disaster. They throw passes to the other team. Illinois scored 22 points off IU's 16 turnovers.
“We'd drive the baseline,” freshman Noah Vonleh said, “and not know where our guys were or where they needed to be.”
In November with a young team, that's understandable. In March, not at all.
Illinois struggled this season, but then everybody did in the Big Ten. The difference: The Illini got better.
The Hoosiers did not. November's flaws stretched into March.
Fair or not, a lot of that is on Crean. Coaching is a buck-stops-here profession. But blame isn't a solution. Improvement is. Results are. Whether it's coaching, the players, the strategy, playbook complexity or misaligned stars, it doesn't matter.
IU is a championship program. The excuses from Crean's first three seasons were blasted away by consecutive Sweet 16s. It's time to sustain success.
Yes, youth is a factor. You can't rush maturity, and the Hoosiers did start three freshmen.
The Hoosiers must play to their talent, of which they have plenty. They must show improvement and maturity. That they do not suggests fractured team chemistry. Losing accelerates that.
IU needed a big game from senior Will Sheehey. It got a big 15 minutes.
It needed dominance from sophomore Yogi Ferrell and got OK (14 points, three turnovers).
It needed crisp offense with minimal turnovers.
It didn't come close to that.
It needed, with basically a tie score and three minutes remaining, to play solid defense. Instead, it gave up a wide-open three-pointer to Illinois' Tracy Abrams, who thrived with 25 points and seven rebounds.
So the Hoosiers do not control their postseason fate. That's up to the whims of the NIT selection committee or, heaven forbid, the pay-to-play CBI.
That would be, pick your adjective, a disaster, an embarrassment, a shame.
There's no doubt about that.