We all know that this Indiana team isn't going to shoot its way back into a game this year late. That's no secret. But what's amazing is IU's 71-66 loss to No. 3 Michigan State Tuesday evening on the road was certainly within reach.
All the Hoosiers needed were a couple made baskets on shots they drill over and over again as a team before every game: layups. To ESPN's count, IU missed 10 layups during the loss - the bulk coming in the second half when things were on the line.
Just the fact that this IU team, who lost to Northwestern at home after taking down Wisconsin less than a week before, was in this game down to the wire was an accomplishment in itself. You could tell they put in a lot of work during this short layoff, and even without Will Sheehey in the lineup because of a bum ankle, they still came out with a lot of fight and energy while guys who were deep down the bench at the beginning of the season played some critical minutes.
Did we ever think we'd see Jeff Howard, Collin Hartman and Austin Etherington each playing some meaningful time at the end of a close game with IU trailing on the road when the season started? I know I didn't.
But all excuses aside. You have to make your layups. You can't afford to miss the easy ones when a team like Michigan State is playing without Adreian Payne and Keith Appling isn't as effective with a hurt wrist.
The Big Ten isn't always going to make sense. Teams like Ohio State who looked great coming into conference play will lose four in a row while Iowa rises up the conference, sitting in third at the moment. But when games are on the line, especially when you're on the road against the No. 3 team in the country, you have to capitalize on the fundamentals.
Free throws. Layups. Knowing who's around you on the court.
When games get down to the wire, it's more than likely going to be the most talented, most experienced, most fundamentally sound team who will come out on top. Up against the rest of the teams in the Big Ten, IU holds those advantages against very few of its conference foes.
This team is going to be a borderline NCAA Tournament team if they get lucky right now; in fact, it's pretty unlikely. Sitting at 2-4 in the conference isn't all that surprising if you looked at the Hoosiers' schedule before Big Ten play started, but think of their opportunities: overtime loss at Illinois, a silly home loss to Northwestern and a five-point loss Tuesday to the Spartans on the road when they led by five midway through the second half.
This doesn't look like a 5-1 Big Ten record team, but just think about how close they've been to that. When you look at it, it all comes back to the fundamentals.