WHAT HAPPENED: No. 1 seed Indiana’s season ended with a 61-50 loss to Syracuse in the NCAA East Regional semifinals in front of 19,731 at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. The Hoosiers finished with 29 wins, the most they’ve had since 1992-93, but they failed to advance further in the NCAA Tournament than they did a year ago.
The Hoosiers fell behind early, totally flummoxed by Syracuse’s suffocating 2-3 zone, and trailed by as great a deficit as 29-11 in the first half and were down 34-22 at the break. They rallied back and cut the deficit to 38-32 with 14:12 to go in the game and were down 46-37 with 10:25 left, but Syracuse sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams scored a bucket in the paint and then hit a 3-pointer to give the Orange a 51-37 lead with 9:10 to go. Indiana would come back to within 10 points with 3:40 left, but never cut it to single digits after that.
WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Syracuse sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams came into the game as the No. 3 assist man in Division I and he finished with just one assist, but that didn’t much matter. He was dynamite off the dribble drive and just as good from outside. He was 9-for-19 from the field and 3-for-6 from beyond the arc for 24 points. He also had four steals.
Senior guard Brandon Triche also had 14 points and two assists, at times getting to the rim at will. Junior swingman C.J. Fair had 11 points and nine rebounds as well as two blocks and two steals. Senior forward James Southerland had five points, seven rebounds, three blocks and three steals.
Indiana junior guard Victor Oladipo was 5-for-6 for 16 points. He had three steals and one of the teams three 3-pointers, but the Hoosiers got little contribution behind him. Senior forward Christian Watford scored 13 points, but he was 4-for-11 from the field with five turnovers, and Indiana needed more than just two 3-pointers from him. Sophomore center Cody Zeller lost a number of battles inside. He posted a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but he was 3-for-11 from the field.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN: Everything that could have gone wrong for Indiana against the zone did go wrong.
First and foremost, the Hoosiers turned the ball over far too many times, giving it away 12 times in the first half and 19 times overall. The Hoosiers were fortunate that Syracuse didn’t take more advantage of that, scoring just 13 points off turnovers and giving the ball away 14 times itself, but the empty possessions were costly. Indiana struggled to make anything resembling an entry pass, didn’t get much traction in the high post, and didn’t make shots inside or outside. They were 16-for-48 from the field (33.3 percent) and 3-for-15 from beyond the arc (20.0 percent). Every inside shot was challenged and many of them were blocked, with the Orange registering 12 blocks. The Orange probably should’ve been called for more than the 17 fouls they were whistled for, but the Hoosiers didn’t take advantage of all of their foul line opportunities either, making just 15 of 24 free throws. The Orange made everything difficult for Indiana, and the Hoosiers never appeared to have anything approaching a solution.
Defensively, the Hoosiers weren’t that bad and that was why they were able to stay in it, but they had no margin for error because of their offensive woes. Michael Carter-Williams was harassed into a few mistakes, but mostly, he was brilliant and his ability to hit outside shots was devastating. Syracuse’s size in the backcourt forced the Hoosiers into mismatches, and fight as he did, Hulls had little chance to shut down Triche. Once Indiana started to make a run, Syracuse kept getting just enough to answer to make sure the Hoosiers couldn’t take over, and the Orange advanced.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN: How to even put this into words.
This team will literally live with this loss forever. In so many ways, that’s unfair, because this group did nothing short of resurrect the Indiana basketball program from its lowest point. It will still go down as one of the most accomplished groups in Indiana history, having won 46 games over the last two seasons, won an outright Big Ten championship for the first time since 1993 and advanced to back-to-back Sweet 16s for the first time since 1991-94.
But something will always feel hollow for them because of this game.
The loss isn’t necessarily devastating for the program. IU coach Tom Crean has reached the point that he can recruit nationally. He has everything he needs to continue to do that. The talent should continue to flow in, and whether the Hoosiers have national championship caliber teams every year from this point forward or not, they will likely at least be Big Ten contenders for the forseeable future. There is talent coming, and he will be able to get more.
But this group expected so much more for this season, and it simply doesn’t seem to make sense for the story to end this way. This was the season they were building for, and this was the last chance for the players who had suffered through the hard times to get their just rewards for everything they had endured. Though there are still monumental accomplishments they will take with them, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston will leave Bloomington feeling somewhat unfulfilled. So too will Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, should they decide to leave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both said they hadn’t even considered their futures as of Thursday night.
Next year is still promising, but it will be much, much different. The roster will seem almost mercenary by comparison, considering that most of the players will have committed to a program that was on its way up instead of digging itself out of a crater. One of the most meaningful groups ever to pass through Assembly Hall will have left, and with much less than it wanted and expected.