Tipoff: Indiana at Michigan State, 7 p.m., Tuesday
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BLOOMINGTON – Indiana blew it.
It had momentum, home court advantage and opportunity -- a reeling Northwestern squad that had been drilled in its last three road games.
It had everything it needed to show its maturity after the Wisconsin upset and set up a big-time showdown at No. 4 Michigan State and, quite simply, blew it.
Four days after its best win of the season, it suffered its worst loss, 54-47. Its offense was atrocious; its crunch-time poise was non-existent (Example No. 1 -- Evan Gordon's ill-advised step-back three-point brick); its veteran leadership was MIA.
“We took a step back,” freshman Stanford Robinson said, “and now we have to take a couple of steps forward to catch up to where we were.”
Or, as coach Tom Crean put it, “We did not have the hunger you need to play with on a daily basis. We did not have it where it needed to be. Northwestern did.”
Now the Hoosiers (12-6) go to Michigan State (17-1) on Tuesday with doubt. You can't win at the Breslin Center with doubt. Not against a team that, despite a bunch of injuries, radiates national title possibilities.
But we digress.
Crean said he saw this defeat coming. Friday's practice lacked focus and consistency. He addressed it then. He addressed it that night. He addressed it Saturday morning. He said they even worked on boxing out hours before the game, something he said he rarely does.
“We weren't mature enough to handle a great win,” he said. “If it was legal to practice at midnight, we would. We're not going to look at any part of this as acceptable.”
Northwestern (9-10) is not Wisconsin, and that includes its approach to shutting down Indiana drives. The Wildcats, having seen the way the Hoosiers attacked the Badgers basket so successfully, packed in their defense. They mixed zone with sagging man to man. If they would lose, it would not be from IU layups.
“We didn't give them easy baskets,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “That's our whole thing. We try to take away layups. We try to make them make contested jump shots.”
Indiana never figured that out. Or, to be precise, it figured it out too late.
IU missed 18 of its first 20 shots and needed almost 14 minutes to score six points. Not even Crean's first Hoosier team, which ranks among the worst in school history because of NCAA sanctions, was this bad.
Crean said the Hoosiers didn't reverse the ball enough. It didn't use the corners enough. It too often settled for jumpers. And in the case of Gordon's mess of a perimeter shot with 22 seconds left and victory still within reach, Crean called it a “terrible jump shot” when attacking the rim was the prime directive.
In other words, Gordon panicked.
But then, terrible shooting can do that to you. The Hoosiers were 6-for-31 in the first half, marginally better (9-for-29) in the second. They shot 22.2 percent (4-for-18) from three-point range. That more than ruined a second straight game of nine turnovers, matching its season best.
Despite all that, IU still could have won if it had been tough minded enough down the stretch.
With 3:40 left, the score was tied at 40-40. A few stops, a few buckets or free throws, and it escapes with a victory.
Instead, Northwestern's Tre Demps got free for seven straight points in a two-minute burst, which was part of his 13-point surge in the final seven minutes. The Wildcats closed with a 14-7 run in one of college basketball's toughest venues.
“We kind of found ourselves, found our identity,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said.
IU found, well, what?
“We're a work in progress in how we finish those things off,” Crean said.
And then …
“I don't get frustrated. I try to understand you coach potential during practice, you coach performance during games. You try to give your team every possible chance to win, whether people understand it or not.”
That means changing lineups by starting reserve Austin Etherington for the second half and playing walk-ons Jonny Marlin (the former IPFW starter) and Jeff Howard down the stretch.
And if fans grumble and critics find fault, well, Crean lives to coach another day.
“You're trying to get your team, and I'm with this team every day so I know what it looks like, you're getting ready to fight again, to do it again. That's the only way it can be.”
The Hoosiers will play again, but will they FIGHT?