As fate would have it, Hoosiers, it looks like we’ll have to wait at least another year to hang our sixth banner.
It’s easy to write off this season simply as a disappointment. After starters Hulls, Oladipo, Watford, and Zeller returned, Indiana was the preseason favorite to win the national championship.
Following that, they spent 10 total weeks with the No. 1 ranking atop the AP Poll during the regular season – more than any other school – and ended up with the best record in arguably the strongest conference in college basketball.
They won the Big Ten outright for the first time in 20 years, and they were slated with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
So when Indiana lost 61-50 to the Syracuse Orange in the Sweet Sixteen, it was clear that this team fell well short of its ultimate goal.
It was undoubtedly one of the tougher losses to swallow for any Hoosier; it stung so much more than last year’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky and any other season in recent memory, but does that mean we write this season off as a bitter “What If?” memory, or is it more than that?
I think these Hoosiers deserve far more credit than many people are giving them, and I’ll tell you why.
Just one season removed from posting a 12-20 record, these Hoosiers were suddenly heralded as college basketball’s top team and had all of the expectations that come with it.
Living up to the immense hype and the pressure, Indiana rattled off nine straight wins to begin to season. They included November victories over a formidable Georgetown by 10 in overtime in Brooklyn, as well as a 24-point drubbing of the North Carolina Tarheels a few games later.
But despite an early unblemished record, some of the Hoosiers’ vulnerabilities were already being exposed. There were imperfections, cracks in the armor.
Like many of the great Indiana teams in the past, these Hoosiers could shoot. And when they were on offensively, they were nearly unstoppable. But sometimes they would get too wound up, too frenetic, and Indiana was often turnover-prone.
The Hoosiers also lacked size in the backcourt in Hulls and Ferrell and would frequently employ a zone to remedy matchup problems. Oftentimes opposing players would post gaudy numbers against their “bend-but-don’t-break” style of defense. Matt Hunter of Central Connecticut State would drop 40 points on the Hoosiers in Bloomington. Florida Atlantic’s Greg Gantt would go for 25, and Purdue’s Andre Hammonds for 30.
And 10 games into the season, on December 15th, Roosevelt Jones would nearly post a triple-double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists) as the Butler Bulldogs would hand the Hoosiers their first loss (by 2 points in overtime), but ultimately their only defeat in non-conference games.
Boasting a 12-1 record coming into Big Ten play, Indiana would go on to win 12 of its first 14 conference games, with their only losses coming to Wisconsin (in Bloomington) and Illinois (in Champaign).
During that stretch, these Hoosiers would knock off four top-10 teams, two of those on the road: first against Ohio State in Columbus and then over Michigan State in East Lansing. And on February 2, they defeated a No. 1-ranked team for the second year in a row when they put down the eventual national runner-up, the Michigan Wolverines.
But as the season wore on, the Hoosiers’ opponents started to figure them out; the loss to Wisconsin gave everyone a nearly perfect template to beating Indiana: force a punishingly slow pace while limiting good shot opportunities.
Against better defensive teams, especially ones that forced turnovers, Indiana struggled. They dropped two of their final four games with losses to Minnesota and Ohio State but ended it in spectacular fashion. We all remember Cody Zeller taking over in the final minute in the second game against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, leading the Hoosiers to a one-point victory and their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years.
Indiana would go on to finish the regular season 26-5, their fewest losses since the 1992-1993 season.
Conference Tournament & NCAA Tournament
After a first round bye, Indiana would avenge their two-point loss to the Illini on February 7, by defeating them handily in the United Center in Chicago.
But in the semifinals, Bo Ryan once again got the best of Tom Crean and the Hoosiers, as Wisconsin would stymie them for the 12th consecutive time, tying the record for most consecutive wins any team has ever had against Indiana. Their 68-56 loss to the Badgers was their worst of the season, but it’s a point that actually deserves a little praise.
Despite finishing with seven losses, these Hoosiers kept it close in just about every single game they played. They were beaten by double digits only twice (a 12-point loss to Wisconsin and an 11-point loss to Syracuse) and only lost those seven games by an average of 6.4 points. This Indiana team may have suffered seven defeats by season’s end, but there were fewer games in which they were truly beaten.
In the NCAA tournament, Indiana breezed by James Madison and showed incredible resiliency and strong defense against a feisty Temple Owls team that had gotten the best of them for the first 35 minutes of the game; they showed the grit and toughness that you’d expect of a Final Four type of team when things weren’t going their way and they came out on top of a close game.
But against Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen, the Hoosiers faltered for a variety of reasons. Whether you want to blame a lack of preparation, match-up problems, their vaunted zone, or the Hoosiers’ shooting woes, Indiana just didn’t have much of an answer for Syracuse’s game. They fought back valiantly after falling behind by as many as 18 early in the first half, but the deficit was ultimately too large for Indiana to overcome.
It ended all too quickly, and a little bit sooner than many of us had expected. But one game shouldn’t make a season. These Hoosiers posted their fewest losses in 20 years, captured a conference title, started the Movement, and set the foundation for years to come. And for that, they deserve praise.
Losing their top four scorers via graduation or the NBA draft will have a dramatic impact on the team, but now we’ll see Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell taking on even larger roles, which is certainly an exciting prospect (and maybe a little scary in Sheehey’s case).
However, Indiana has a plethora of very talented incoming recruits in Vonleh, Williams, Fisher, and Robinson (as well as Davis and Hartman). ESPN ranks the Hoosiers’ 2013 recruiting class as fourth in the nation, only behind Kentucky, Memphis, and Kansas.
Crean has demonstrated an exceptional ability to get the most out of his players, and I have little doubt that 2013 will be another highly competitive season for Indiana.
So while they came up a little bit short in our ultimate goal to hang banner number six, Indiana can celebrate its’ first outright Big Ten title in 20 years, and more importantly, the Hoosiers’ fully cemented return to national prominence.