INDIANAPOLIS — Get those brackets ready, Hoosier faithful – but not for the NCAA tournament.
Indiana needed four wins at the Big Ten Tournament to ensure admission into college basketball’s end-of-year showcase, but the Hoosiers’ tourney run stalled out before it could even get started with a 64-54 defeat to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten’s postseason competition Thursday afternoon.
Doomed by 35-percent shooting, 16 turnovers and the inability to generate defensive stops late, the Hoosiers (17-15) are likely headed to the NIT or another postseason tournament of far less significance than the Big Dance.
“Bottom line is we can play better. We have to – you have to match the toughness and the competitive spirit every time that you play. And we’ve just got to quit making defensive mistakes in coverages and giving them live ball turnovers,” said IU coach Tom Crean, whose team lost for the third straight game and for the seventh time in its past 10 contests. “Really what I want to do is try to find a different way to say that message because I’ve given it a few times. And that’s the biggest thing.”
Indiana trailed 53-52 with three minutes and 13 seconds left in the game, but missed its next five shots, turned the ball over once and failed to keep the Fighting Illini off the scoreboard over the next 2:59, which allowed Illinois to seize control at 62-52.
The Hoosiers didn’t make it easy on themselves, especially early on. In the first half, IU shot 2-of-13 from 2-point range, got just two points from all-league freshman forward Noah Vonleh and turned the ball over nine times. Despite those missteps, the Hoosiers trailed 30-28 at half, overcoming a 9-0 deficit less than four minutes into the game.
But in the end, turnovers were the name of the game, a familiar scene for Crean to witness as IU entered Thursday ranked 328th in the country in the category of self-inflicted miscues.
“The value of the basketball is a big one. …Just continue to make simple basketball plays,” Crean said when asked where his team has room to grow.
“And probably the biggest word that we use is just that intent – the intent of it – intent covers a lot of things. It covers your competitiveness. It covers your awareness. It covers your grit. It covers your will, you know, the intent of getting stops.”
Though the Hoosiers likely haven’t taken the court for the last time this season, it’s worth reviewing where they stand now that they’ve played their final truly meaningful game of the 2013-14 campaign:
Why was Indiana fighting for its NCAA tournament life?
Coming into the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana was 7-11 in conference play, ranked 90th in the RPI and was 4-9 vs. the RPI top 50. Its nonconference strength of schedule was a dismal 209th in the nation, and the Hoosiers did themselves no favors by losing their two toughest non-Big Ten games to Connecticut and Syracuse. A 2-8 road record was a sight for sore eyes, too.
Is Noah Vonleh leaving for the NBA?
Vonleh declined to talk about possibly jumping to the pros post-game, but no matter what reputable 2014 NBA mock draft or prospect big board one comes across, Vonleh is considered a top-10 player. With that in mind, the 6-10 Massachusetts native with a 7-4 wingspan is likely gone. Vonleh is also young – he won’t turn 19 until Aug. 24 – and that means teams won’t be afraid to risk a lottery pick on a player of his age and upside.
Vonleh did miss two of the last three games of the regular season with a foot injury, and Crean said Vonleh was limited this week in practice. Illinois doubled-teamed Vonleh on post-entry passes in the first half before switching to a 2-3 zone in the second half, so Vonleh’s normal effectiveness (11.4 points, 9.1 rebounds) just wasn’t present Thursday (six points, five rebounds).
“I think you can see that in his energy at times in the game. We’ve really had to hold him back in the practices. And it’s part of it. So there’s no question he can be more aggressive. There’s no question about that,” Crean said of Vonleh. “But he gets a lot of focus too as you see. As good as Yogi (Ferrell) is and as good as Will (Sheehey) is, the post double and things like that, the freshman that misses time, it’s like missing considerable amounts.”
Where do the Hoosiers go from here?
The good news for IU fans is that this team is very young. Eight of the team’s top-10 players in minutes played are underclassmen. Four freshmen (Vonleh, Devin Davis, Stanford Robinson, Troy Williams), a transfer (Evan Gordon) and sophomore Austin Etherington – who played in seven 2012-13 games before season-ending knee surgery – either had very limited or no court time coming into the year. Plus, sophomores Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Parea were no more than bit rotation players a season ago. The Hoosiers’ only notable returnees were Ferrell and Sheehey.
Gordon, Sheehey and reserve Jeff Howard will graduate, and in comes a 3-man recruiting class headlined by guards James Blackmon Jr. – a Marion High School product who will likely play right away because of his scoring prowess – and Robert Johnson, a Virginia native.
A sizable issue going forward is the lack of frontcourt depth. With Vonleh’s likely departure and the transfer of 6-11 freshman Luke Fischer in early January, Mosquera-Parea is, as of now, the only post player coming back that received notable playing time this season. Should Vonleh indeed leave for the NBA, a scholarship will open up, so expect Crean to scour the offseason transfer market for another big man.