Indiana’s hopes to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament a year after winning the Big Ten have been pushed to the very edge of the cliff.
The Hoosiers’ 75-63 home loss to Michigan, a team not currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament, dropped them to 15-11 overall and 5-8 in the Big Ten.
Indiana has lost five of its past six and has beaten only one team (No. 53 Michigan State) in the top-70 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings since its 76-67 win over No. 10 North Carolina on Nov. 30.
Since Dec. 1, Indiana is 4-10 against KenPom top-100 teams, with two wins over Penn State, one over Michigan State and one over Illinois.
Indiana, which has one true road wins all season — at Penn State on James Blackmon Jr.’s buzzer-beater — plays four of its final regular-season games on the road.
Prior to Sunday’s game, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected the Hoosiers as one of the last four teams in the 68-team field.
Barring something close to miraculous, either to close to regular season or in the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C., it’s difficult to project the Hoosiers in the NCAA Tournament at this point.
Indiana hasn’t won more than one Big Ten Tournament game since going 2-1 in the event in 2003.
Add up the math, recent performances, players out with injuries and a decade-plus of Big Ten Tournament history, and little points to a big run down the stretch.
Junior guard Robert Johnson, one of two IU players to answer questions postgame, wasn’t about to give up on the season.
“Everything we started off wanting,” Johnson said of what IU would like to get out of this season at this point. “We still have a season left to play. We still have a lot of opportunities.
“So we're definitely not even thinking about quitting. We always look forward to the next game. Now we're just looking forward to getting better and moving on to the next game, and that's another opportunity.”
Indiana has road games at Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State sandwiched around a home game against Northwestern. All of those teams are in the KenPom top-70 with the exception of No. 71 Iowa.
So how can IU create some late-season magic?
“Just preparing each and every day,” said freshman center De’Ron Davis, who scored a team-high 13 points. “It starts tomorrow. Gotta come into practice with a good mindset.
“We gotta come into practice willing to work, and coach will have a game plan for us, and we gotta follow the game plan and continue to work and get better.”
IU coach Tom Crean, who rallied the Hoosiers to the 2016 Big Ten title and a Sweet Sixteen after early season stumbles in Maui and at Duke, tried to stay in the moment.
When longtime IU writer Terry Hutchens asked how IU can turn it around with four of five on the road, Crean responded: “You know what, Terry, you've been around me for nine years. I'm not going to think much past today. I appreciate the question but I'm kind of locked in what we have to do now. I can't jump ahead, unfortunately.”
Indiana starting guards Johnson and James Blackmon Jr., in his second start back after a lower leg injury, and starting center Thomas Bryant combined to play 88 minutes and score 19 points on seven made baskets.
Averaging 8.8 made 3s per game, IU mad its first 3 with 13:38 to play.
Maybe my shooters are feeling too much pressure. I'm not sure it was the Michigan defense. Maybe it was. I'm sure they'll credit themselves for it,” Crean said.
“Maybe it is. I have to watch the film. But bottom line is we're not making enough shots to win. We're not making enough jump shots. We didn't make enough jump shots the other night.
“And right now we're not turning that around and getting enough to stops — we did it for a while in the second half — but we're not getting enough stops to overcome the misses that we're having.
“And again we've got some guys that aren't close to healthy, but that doesn't have anything to do with the setups, setting your man up and being ready to knock down shots.
“So not a great performance by any stretch.”
Crean also mentioned immaturity from IU’s guards.
“Immaturity in the back court. We don't play both ends of the floor with the same purpose that we have to play when our shots aren't going,” Crean said. “And we've had injuries in there, too. But that's got to change.”
Crean also said the responsibility falls on him, mentioning the signs IU has been holding up on the bench for several weeks as reminders for the players.
“I know a lot of you have fun with those signs, and that's fine. I can wear a lot — I took the (Mo) Wagner hit, jumped right up. I hope I get some credit for that. Didn't even bat an eye,” Crean said, referring to the Michigan forward who hit a 3-pointer and back up, running him over.
“But I'm trying to be proactive, and I'm not shirking responsibility one iota. It falls on me. One thing I've learned in nine years, it all falls on me. But the bottom line is that we've got to do something to get communication up.
“And when the shots aren't going is when the communication has got to be even higher. Because it's very easy to have communication. It's very easy to be locked in and connected to one another when the shots are going, but when they aren't going is when real leadership's got to emerge. And we're not having as much of that right now.”