It is somehow fitting, Indiana coach Tom Crean said, that the Hoosiers don’t get to coast through their final game.
Tuesday’s loss against Ohio State means Indiana has to win Sunday at 4 p.m. against Michigan in the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor to win the Big Ten title outright, though it already has a share of the title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament clinched. The Hoosiers also probably need another big win to add to their case for a No. 1 seed, which took a significant hit with that loss to the Buckeyes.
“I thought about that with the seniors,” Crean said. “Nothing’s been easy for them. … Nothing about this has been easy. Going on the road this year has not been easy. Building this up this year has not been easy. You may want it easy from time to time, but I don’t think there’s anybody who’s been built in this program and who’s come up in this program who knows what to do with easy, if that makes any sense.”
It sort of does, because beating Ohio State would’ve made things a lot easier. The loss sends them into a game against the nation’s No. 7 team in Michigan with zero positive momentum and lingering questions about whether or not they peaked too early or have simply lost their mojo at the worst possible time. The Hoosiers had lost games before, but Ohio State marked the third straight game in which they simply didn’t look like themselves. They lost at Minnesota last week in a game in which they were destroyed on the boards, then won a messy rock fight of a game against Iowa on Saturday before the Ohio State loss.
“There are winning moments in every game,” assistant coach Tim Buckley said. “I think being able to make those plays at those times, show teams end up winning and which teams end up on the short end. The majority of our games in the Big Ten we’ve been able to make those plays. In these last couple, we haven’t been able to do that. When you play against really good teams and really good talent, it’s hard to overcome that when you make a mistake or you aren’t able to capitalize on the other end.”
The Hoosiers’ recent sluggishness raised questions about whether or not the Hoosiers are fatigued or have lost their legs. Crean said he doesn’t think the team is physically fatigued, but said there is a level of mental fatigue that takes its toll on every team.
“We’re not having as bad of stretches as we’re having pockets that aren’t so good,” Crean said. “There’s a difference. Stretches are like ruts you can’t get out of. We really haven’t been in that situation. There’s been a couple of pockets, and because the teams are so good in this league, plays get magnified. … There’s no question over a long season that the mental fatigue kicks in, and everybody goes through it. The word “grind” is over-used a lot of times and under-understood or misunderstood. There’s a lot that goes into this. These guys have worked so hard to get in this position.”
It will only take more hard work to get the Hoosiers back to playing at the level they were at from late January through the middle of February, especially in the game at Michigan State when they asserted themselves as the nation’s undisputed No. 1 team. The Hoosiers believe they still have that in them.
“Just play the way that we know we’re capable of playing,” senior guard Jordan Hulls said. “Moving the basketball, playing defense, getting stops. Let that create our offense, create our own energy, be unselfish and hit shots.”
Said Crean: “We’ve practiced well. There’s a sense of urgency. Not just because we’ve lost, not just because it’s Michigan, but because they know they can play better. That’s really what it its. They’ve always been good with that.”
Whether they were playing well or not, Michigan would require a sense of urgency. The Wolverines aren’t quite as intimidating as they were the first time Indiana played them in early February when Michigan was the No. 1 team in the nation. They suffered a head-scratching loss at Penn State and were in a dogfight with Purdue earlier this week. Freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III were both making a play for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award but have hit something of a wall in conference play, but point guard Trey Burke has been able to carry them through their tough stretches and put them on his back for a win over Michigan State last week. He’s averaging 24.0 points and just under seven assists per game in Michigan’s last five games and he’s averaging more than 20 points per game in conference play.
“He’s taking over the games in the end of games,” junior guard Victor Oladipo said. “I believe against Purdue a couple of days ago, they were down and he basically took over the game at the end of the game. he’s just doing a great job of leading the team. Ya’ll know and everyone knows he’s a great player. We’re gonna need to stop him in order to win.”
There’s an individual motivation for Oladipo to stop Burke as well. He and Burke are the front-runners for Big Ten Player of the Year honors — though teammate Cody Zeller is still in the race as well — and and the winner might well be determined by Sunday’s game.
“I’m trying to win basketball games,” Oladipo said. “If we don’t win then we can’t be successful.”