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Hoosiers' season ends way too soon
It was quiet in the Indiana Hoosiers’ locker room, an awkward sort of silence punctuated by the loudly clicking cameras and the pointless “How does it feel?” questions and the hushed answers that can come only from a team that fell far short of its lofty expectations.
A locker room is always a painful place to be after a loss. It becomes even more painful when that loss ends a season, and is at its most painful after a loss that ends the national title aspirations of the team that held the No. 1 ranking longer than any other team this season.
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana’s freshman point guard whose zero points, one assist and four turnovers aided Indiana’s Sweet 16 downfall against Syracuse on Thursday, cut tape off his ankles. Jordan Hulls, whose 0-for-6 night from 3 hurt Indiana’s chance of scratching its way back from an early deficit, rested his elbows on his knees and looked to the ground as he answered questions about Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Victor Oladipo, who may have been the only Hoosier to play near his potential with 16 points and three steals, spoke so quietly that reporters kept creeping closer and closer to him until one reporter was stepping on his feet.
Thursday night’s 61-50 loss wasn’t just a defeat, it was the biggest upset in the tournament this side of Dunk City. Not because the Hoosiers were invincible (they showed plenty of vulnerabilities over the past month) or because Syracuse was an inferior team (the Orange has proven itself since going on a tear in the Big East Tournament), but because we all bought into one of the primary storylines this season: Indiana was back. The lost blueblood had found its way. The Hoosiers had all the tools they needed, including two likely lottery picks, to win their first national title since 1987.
Last season’s surprise trip to the Sweet 16 was catnip to Hoosiers fans who survived the embarrassments that were the Mike Davis and Kelvin Sampson eras. But this season’s Sweet 16 trip was something else: a season that ended earlier than it should have. A gut punch of disappointment to a fan base that might be college basketball’s best. Another example of how expectations are everything, and when they’re as high as this Indiana team’s, all the postgame locker-room talk about this year’s successes — about the Big Ten title and the No. 1 rankings and legacy of this senior class that revived Indiana basketball — only put an exclamation point on its failure.
Failure? It’s hard to call it that, just because of one loss. It’s completely unfair. This team had 29 wins, which is 23 more wins than head coach Tom Crean had in his first season in Bloomington, the worst season in Indiana history. The Hoosiers won the regular season title of the toughest conference in basketball. This was the culmination of one of the most dramatic rebuilding projects in recent memory.
Does that sound like failure?
“I hope at some point in time, the seniors, the guys on this team will remember that they did things that hadn’t been done first off in 20 years at Indiana,” Crean said, trying to paint a big picture. “But more importantly there are not any programs — whether this be Syracuse, Kentucky, Carolina, Duke, you name it — that are the blueblood programs of the country that have had to endure what these guys have had to endure…
“It's hard to put that into context or perspective tonight,” Crean said.
That’s because, setting the big-picture accomplishments to the side, the only context or perspective on Thursday was that this was a failure of epic proportions.
From the start, Indiana looked befuddled by the Syracuse zone. Syracuse’s length closed the gaps and showed just how important it is to have experience playing against zone defenses. Six minutes in it was 11-3 Syracuse. With just over three minutes left in the first half it was 29-11. Indiana’s guard tandem of Ferrell and Hulls couldn’t do a thing; Syracuse’s starting backcourt of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche outscored Indiana’s starting backcourt 38-0.
It seemed like every time All-American 7-footer Cody Zeller put up a shot, he was blocked by a swarming Syracuse defense, which had 10 blocks. Christian Watford had five of Indiana’s 18 turnovers. And hitting only 15 of 24 free throws didn’t help Indiana’s lot. With six minutes left and Syracuse up 16, the only thing that seemed undetermined was whether Indiana could save a bit of face and keep it from being its most lopsided loss of the season. (An Oladipo layup as the clock wound down made it one point better than Indiana’s 12-point loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament.)
It was ugly, the fewest points that the third-highest scoring team in college basketball had scored all season.
“We were moving a little too fast,” Oladipo said. “I think we were a little anxious, a little overwhelmed. We all needed to take deep breaths and slow down.”
“We were a little bit too passive,” junior forward Will Sheehey said. “For the seniors to go out without winning it all, it’s tough.”
“We were thinking more than playing,” Ferrell said. “The zone kind of makes you overthink.”
“We got tentative because we kept trying to put the ball in from places that it just wasn't going to come from there,” Crean said. “It had to come more from the wing.”
There are the immediate explanations — that Carter-Williams played the game of his life, scoring a career-high 24 points, that Indiana wasn’t used to playing this Syracuse 2-3 zone, that Crean didn’t get his team to play loose in the first half — and then there is the long-view perspective. Is this season a success, given where this team came from five years ago? Or is this season the very definition of failure, a team that was trumpeted as better than all the others for the entire season leaving the field way before it should have?
“We’ve done a lot of things, but at the same time, we wanted to go all the way,” Oladipo said. “All that hard work we’ve done in, all the wins we’ve won, it’s kind of bittersweet to be here, talking about a loss.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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