CHICAGO – Indiana’s turbulent season, in the eyes of many impartial observers, touched down with a bumpy landing Thursday afternoon. The Hoosiers haven’t yet reached their gate but they will likely get waved past the terminal reserved for NCAA Tournament teams – that’s for Ohio State and 67 others – and probably to a stall made for a top-four seed in the NIT, like they were two seasons ago – a destination that could’ve even been a suitable outcome last year in Archie Miller’s first season as Indiana’s head coach.
But not this season, with this team, with that freshman, at this school, according to many Indiana fans.
Stadium spent an hour Thursday talking to Indiana fans in attendance at the Big Ten Tournament, gauging their impressions and expectations of the team in the preseason, after non-conference play, after the team’s losing streaks and entering the Big Ten Tournament.
That outcome, in a word – and a word used by many Indiana fans at the United Center – would be disappointing.
“We’ll wait and see,” Indiana Coach Archie Miller said, when asked about how he thought the loss affected his team’s NCAA Tournament changes. “It will be difficult.”
A season filled with promise because of the return of Second Team All-Big Ten forward Juwan Morgan and the enrollment of a top-10 recruiting class that was headlined five-star shooting guard Romeo Langford crescendoed following a 12-2 start and a No. 21 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll.
Indiana fans on their preseason expectations:
Terrence Klingensmith, Portage, IN: “Felt like it looked up, definitely going to make the tournament. Feeling optimistic for the first time a few years.”
Tim Marker, New Carlisle, IN: “I thought we had a good chance to go to the tournament with who we had coming back, with [Romeo Langford] added.”
There were non-conference wins over then-No. 24 Marquette and Louisville, both of which aged well and actually looked better by the end of January.
The same couldn’t be said for Indiana, however.
A seven-game slide in January ended during an improbable 79-75 overtime win at co-Big Ten champion Michigan State, of all teams, before the Hoosiers’ downward spiral continued, eventually bottoming out as they lost 12 of 13, falling to 13-14 on the season.
Injuries and personnel issues certainly played a role as an unspecified leg injury to freshman forward Jerome Hunter (No. 59 in the 2018 recruiting class) kept him out the entire season. Concussions plagued freshman point guard Rob Phinisee and redshirt freshman forward Race Thompson.
De’Ron Davis missed three games at the end of January, which overlapped with the three-game suspension of junior guard Devonte Green, as Indiana’s losing streak grew to seven.
The junior duo’s first game back was the win at Michigan State.
Indiana fans on the team’s losing streaks:
Lexi Hamstra, an Indiana student from Northwest Indiana: “Honestly, people stopped talking about basketball it felt like. Like people stopped going to games and everyone was like, ‘Oh, we lost another one.’ Definitely not as much excitement and energy. Obviously there are still dedicated fans that go to every game but it was definitely pretty frustrating, especially (after) starting off so strong.
Paul Miller, Winamac, IN: “There were a couple games where I quit watching.”
Chet Winn, New Salisbury, IN: “I didn’t watch as much. I’d watch for the first few minutes and then we knew what was going to happen.”
A four-game winning streak to end the regular season, which started with a double-overtime victory against Wisconsin and included a season sweep of Michigan State, propelled the Hoosiers back into the at-large conversation.
A Thursday exit from the Big Ten Tournament stopped Indiana’s positive momentum dead in its tracks.
The Hoosiers led the Buckeyes once, for 44 seconds, after Langford hit a 3-pointer from the right wing in transition that gave Indiana a 3-2 lead in the first two minutes of the game in front of a pro-Indiana crowd.
He didn’t score again until there was 14:15 left in the game.
Langford dismissed the idea that there’s a higher level of scrutiny on him than any of his teammates.
“I really wouldn’t know that,” he said after the game.
Being the No. 7 overall recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, will do that to an elite basketball player in a basketball-crazy state.
When Langford was replaced with walk-on Zach McRoberts with 8:31 to play in the first half, one Indiana fan sitting in the first few rows behind the team’s bench shouted, “Romeo, take over!”
“Do you want to go dancin’?”
Langford was in the midst of his longest shooting – shooting, not scoring – drought of the game.
He went nearly nine minutes of game action in the middle of the first half without attempting a shot.
That was followed by an eight-minute, 37-second shooting drought that spanned both sides of halftime and nearly a four-and-a-half-minute stretch without a shot attempt in the middle of the second half.
Ohio State’s lead grew to 20 points, 63-43, on a wide-open three from Luther Muhammad with seven and a half minutes left. With Indiana’s season on the line, junior guard Devonte Green scored a career-high 26 points thanks to an 8-of-10 shooting performance from three, including 15 points and four assists in the second half.
Green made half as many shots (nine) as his teammates did combined (18). Indiana’s starters were 12-of-39 (30.7%) and forwards Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis were limited due to foul trouble, often leaving Indiana’s offense bogged down as the Hoosiers searched for answers beyond Green’s outside shooting.
On one possession in the first half, Davis was double-teamed in the paint and he had the ball stolen by Ohio State’s Duane Washington Jr., causing Miller to exclaim to his coaching staff in frustration, “Pass the ball. We’ve got 10 guys in the paint!”
Langford finished with nine points on 4-of-12 shooting, six rebounds and five assists but four of his points and two assists came in the final 90 seconds, as his layup with 55 seconds left cut the deficit to 72-69.
Keyshawn Woods, a grad transfer from Wake Forest, responded by driving against Langford, getting to his desired spot to the right of the basket and hitting a short jumper, like he had all game.
Perhaps the most excruciating one of all was his fadeaway jumper over Langford in the closing seconds of the first half, which gave Ohio State a 35-28 lead at halftime.
A frustrated Miller then took his jacket off before he reached the tunnel.
Woods finished with a team-high 18 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
In the game’s closing seconds, an offensive foul from Evan Fitzner, combined with Ohio State’s ability to make free throws in crunch time, sealed the victory for the Buckeyes.
“Just weren’t good enough at this game at this level for what was at stake,” Miller told reporters after the game. “Needed to play smarter and sharper and at the end of the day be better defensively in terms of rebounding, some things we could control and didn’t.”
Miller highlighted 50/50 balls and long rebounds as plays that Ohio State won against Indiana. It was also a talking point between Miller and McRoberts on the bench during the second half following a stretch in which the Buckeyes out-hustled their counterparts.
It was some amalgam of effort, awareness, energy and confidence that plagued Indiana throughout the season.
Phinisee was asked what changed between Indiana’s 12-2 start, a 1-12 stretch in Big Ten play and the team’s four-game winning streak to close a regular season that was full of wild swings up and down.
“I’d say energy level and confidence,” Phinisee said. “Once we lost a couple I feel like some guys lost confidence but after that I feel like everybody was confident and that run we had and everybody just played well.”
Indiana’s final seven minutes of play against Ohio State was a fitting end before Selection Sunday.
Too little, too late.
“We just didn’t want to go out how we were looking,” sophomore guard Al Durham said. “We were down 20 and we just didn’t want to go out like that. We have more heart than that and we feel like we were better than that so we just made a push at the end and cut it to a one-possession game.
“I felt like we bring that from the beginning, it’s a different ball game.”
Now Indiana has a three-day wait before it learns its fate. There are no more games. It’s record is final.
The Hoosiers and their coach cited their strength of schedule, their non-conference success and their Quadrant 1 wins when asked about their team’s NCAA Tournament resume.
“Our resume at the end of the day, if you put it up there with a blank sketch, I’m sure it compares favorably to some other teams,” Miller said. “We’ve played a ridiculous schedule. And have obviously beaten teams that obviously made the tournament.”
They’re staying optimistic for now.
“I mean, we haven’t not made it yet,” senior Evan Fitzner said, cracking a smile, when a reporter asked what it would mean to finish his college career with a season that didn’t include an NCAA Tournament appearance.
If Indiana doesn’t make the tournament, it’ll be a long offseason for the Hoosiers and their fans as they potentially face their third consecutive season without an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I feel like it’s going to be a big disappointment if they don’t make the NCAA Tournament,” said Terrence Klingensmith, an Indiana fan from Portage, Indiana, who was in attendance at the United Center.
“They’ll be a 1 seed in the NIT but what’s the NIT?”