BLOOMINGTON – The towel has not been thrown. This much we know about Indiana.
The postseason resonates with unwanted uncertainty.
This, too, we know about the Hoosiers.
Losses keep coming, injuries along with them, and a once promising season continues its slide to irrelevance.
At least the fight remains.
That means something.
If you saw the way the Hoosiers battled the Big Ten’s two best teams, Wisconsin and Purdue, in the last week, you know concession isn’t in the mix.
And yet …
Being competitive isn’t good enough, and everyone knows it. Of IU’s 10 losses, seven have been by seven or fewer points, five by five or less, including Thursday night’s 69-64 loss to No. 16 Purdue.
That’s a mental toughness issue, especially at crunch time, that has nothing to do with injuries.
Still, amid fan resignation that things will get worse before they get better, here’s a dose of perspective:
IU is, as coach Tom Crean says, getting better.
Individually, that is.
Guard Josh Newkirk has emerged the last three games. Against Purdue, it was eight points, a team-leading eight rebounds, three assists and one turnover. Reserve forward Freddie McSwain was solid in scoring, rebounding and defending against the Boilers. Center Thomas Bryant has, in a lot of ways, become the offensive force everyone expected, although he still doesn’t rebound as consistently as a 6-10, 250-pound guy should. Walk-on guard Zach McRoberts continues to make the little plays that make a difference. He had five rebounds in 19 minutes against the Boilers, which is two more boards in seven fewer minutes than the much bigger Bryant. He also blocked a shot.
Collectively, well, it’s not happening.
It's that crunch-time thing.
IU has lost four of its last five games to fall to 15-10, 5-7 in the Big Ten. It has no chance of returning to the national polls until next season.
Still, even with a never-ending series of injuries (De’Ron Davis and Devonte Green have joined OG Anunoby and Collin Hartman on the list), a strong finish is possible.
“We have to stay together,” Bryant says. “We’ve got to keep fighting through the thicks and thins, the ups and downs. Keep coming together and fighting for one another.”
IU has talent. Guard James Blackmon is one of the nation’s top shooters, and should soon regain his accuracy after missing three games because of a knee injury. Guard Robert Johnson is better than he showed against Purdue (eight points on 2-for-11 shooting). Add Bryant and you have three of the Big Ten’s better players.
That’s a foundation you can win with.
IU’s defense has been much better the last couple of games. Purdue, one of the nation’s best shooting teams, only made 42.6 percent of its shots. A few days earlier, Wisconsin was at 39.6 percent.
As far as NCAA tourney prospects, there is no magic number of victories. The Hoosiers have six conference games remaining, two at home, but only one seems unwinnable — Feb. 28 at Purdue.
They host Michigan (15-9) on Sunday and Northwestern (18-6) on Feb. 25. They also play at Minnesota (17-7), at Iowa (14-11) and at Ohio State (15-10). Only Northwestern, at 7-4, has a winning Big Ten record.
For IU, a 20-11 record, 10-8 in the conference, is not mission impossible.
And if ever there was a time to do well in the Big Ten tourney (the Hoosiers are a miserable 4-13 in the annual event since 2004, with just one win in their last five games), this is it.
With parity ruling college basketball these days, the Hoosiers’ poor home non-conference scheduling — the overall non-conference schedule comes in at an amazingly bad No. 304 out of 351 NCAA Division I teams according to kenpom.com — could be a difference-maker, and not in a good way.
IU has a NCAA RPI of No. 81. Penn State, which has lost twice to the Hoosiers, but has a non-conference strength of schedule twice that of Indiana, has a RPI of 79.
That’s a problem, and IU has no one to blame but itself.
Crean has far more immediate worries. Michigan crushed the Hoosiers by 30 points a couple of weeks ago in Ann Arbor. It whipped Michigan State by 29 points a couple of days ago. Just like Purdue, the Wolverines will load up with good shooters. Six Wolverines scored in double figures in the first meeting.
IU has to bounce back in a big way.
“We’ve got a lot of games left,” Blackmon says. “We have to have short-term memory … We’ve got to come out with more wins.”
Having Blackmon back helps. Rust was a factor in his 3-for-14 shooting against Purdue, although don’t under-estimate the impact of Boiler guard Dakota Mathias, who has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best defenders.
Bottom line – IU has a NCAA tourney chance.
Repeat — it has a chance. It has to play like that matters.
“We have to approach it that we’re trying to get better,” Blackmon says. “We’ve got to stay together. We know the talent in the room is never going to be a problem for us. It’s just going to be figuring out ways and staying together throughout the whole game.”
Beating Michigan would be a critical start.
This column is the commentary of the writer and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Pete DiPrimio at firstname.lastname@example.org
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