INDIANAPOLIS – Not surprisingly for noon on a Thursday, many seats at Bankers Life Fieldhouse remained unoccupied when the Big Ten tournament began. Those that were filled mostly featured fans dressed in varying amounts of crimson. This was Indiana, and Indiana was playing. For those fans, attendance was mandatory, though what everyone came for seemed like less of a celebration and more like a living wake.
It has not been a very good year for basketball in a state teeming with pride about the game, and these four days in the capital city were essentially an extended death rattle. Neither Indiana nor Purdue were expected to win this event, and so neither were expected to make the NCAA tournament. And given that this represented the last chance for any of the 10 Division I programs from the Hoosier State to reach the NCAAs, it meant that no team from the state would go to the Big Dance for only the second time in 42 years.
“This year is very odd, and a weird feeling,” said Indiana forward Austin Etherington, a native of Cicero, just 30 miles north of the arena. “Everyone grows up playing basketball, watching basketball, and it means something to them. I definitely feel like it's something that will frustrate people.”
There was no shortage of aggravation Thursday, given the bitter symbolism of Indiana and Purdue hastily bowing out back-to-back in the first session of the Big Ten tournament. The same Hoosiers problems with shooting and turnovers and defense reemerged in a 64-54 loss to Illinois, leaving them at 17-15 overall. The Boilermakers fell to 15-17 after a 63-61 defeat by Ohio State, their seventh straight loss and fourth this season by no more than three points. And so the state line effectively became an electric fence, ensuring that any team with designs on departing for the NCAA brackets would not be going anywhere.
It's saying something when the state's last best hope disintegrated in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Tuesday, as IPFW faltered late in the Summit League tournament title game and failed to seize the automatic bid into the field of 68. By then, most hope for every other team had passed its expiration date. Mid-majors Ball State, Evansville, IUPUI and Valparaiso were never serious tourney contenders. Notre Dame and Butler played in power leagues but both were wheezing through the last stages of disastrous seasons and duly bowed out in the first round of their respective conference tournaments. Indiana State, a quality team, had the misfortune of being second-best team in a one-bid league won by a program, Wichita State, that hasn't lost a game all year. Last came Indiana and Purdue, the first out in the Big Ten tournament.
It's an odd feeling but not an entirely unfamiliar one – the state was also shut out from the NCAA tournament in 2005. To have all four major-conference programs falter at once is coincidence, though still inexcusable. “In a basketball state, to not have any of us be part of that thing would be very strange,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said earlier in the week.
Reviewing the reasons for it amounts to clubbing four dead horses, but for the record: Indiana lost two lottery picks in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, was young and was dogged by the same issues (three-point shooting, turnovers) until the end. Notre Dame lost its best player, Jerian Grant, to academic suspension for the spring semester and went just 7-13 the rest of the way. Purdue was also young. Butler was expected to have a bad year and lived down to expectations, finishing next-to-last in the Big East.
It's more pertinent now to figure out whether anything will change. Because it's not terribly difficult to envision history repeating itself. In large part, the personnel for each team will be older but otherwise not much different. Grant's return is invaluable to the Irish, but it's a bit of a trade-off with veteran point guard Eric Atkins graduating. There is a stay-or-go decision to be made by Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh, and possibly for Purdue's enigmatic 7-footer A.J. Hammons. None of the four recruiting classes represent an eye-popping infusion of talent, though Indiana does have a McDonald's All-American in James Blackmon entering the fold. Mostly, though, the talent that collectively will go ignored on Selection Sunday will return to try to rectify that next season. Whether that's a good or a bad thing for fans of these four teams depends on their level of optimism that day.
“We've said it after every loss, each time we've talked to the media – the talent is there,” Purdue senior guard Terone Johnson said. “It's just that those guys are going to have to be consistent listening to coach and just playing hard all the time.”
The track records of each program, as well as the odds of yet another broad failure, suggest this is an anomaly. “It is a different year for these teams,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said, “and I don't think that's going to happen too often.” But that sentiment did not lessen the brutality Thursday. Purdue spent all season attempting to figure out why it would fall a play short... and then fell a play short. Or maybe two plays short: A botched handoff with eight seconds to play robbed the Boilermakers of a chance to tie Ohio State, and then Johnson missed a three-pointer that would have won it at the buzzer.
A five-time national champion like Indiana, meanwhile, shouldn't be in the business of missing the NCAA tournament, ever. But maintaining high-level success when Oladipo and Zeller left for the pros was no easy trick, either, and now the Hoosiers will have missed the Big Dance four times in six years. The trio of shooters coming on board will address one glaring need. But Vonleh's stay-or-go decision complicates matters a bit, even as the other four first-year players who logged court time Thursday grow a year older. “I wouldn't say it's a disappointing season, because this our first time all playing together, with a new group,” freshman guard Stanford Robinson said Thursday, quite possibly speaking only for himself. “I like that we all bring something different to the table. That's what makes us so good. If we can all just put it together, like it looked like we had been doing at the end, we'll come out with a good season next year.”
Putting it together will indeed be an offseason emphasis. It was as if Indiana never quite learned anything between November and this Thursday in March, or certainly never elevated its play nearly enough. The Hoosiers hit six of 10 three-point attempts in the first half and then missed all 10 after the break. There were 16 turnovers. And there were glaring mishaps at the end, especially on the defensive side. With two minutes left and Indiana trailing by just one, Illinois guard Tracy Abrams received the ball on the wing and had no defenders within a ZIP Code of him. Abrams had enough time to contemplate whether to pass or set himself up for a shot. He eventually elected to shoot, draining a three-pointer that tipped the game toward the Illini.
“Yogi (Ferrell) had two guys, and honestly, he made the right decision,” Etherington said of the sequence that led to Abrams' three-pointer. “It was either Abrams or (Rayvonte) Rice, they're both great players. But I think we had to give up an Abrams three over a Rice layup at the time. No one was there, Yogi made a decision, and the top guy needs to go bump him over, to help him, but no one was there.”
It'll be a fitting epitaph for many of the state's programs on Sunday, but a handful of them most acutely.
Etherington described watching NCAA tournaments past when his allegiance would migrate to whatever team from the state was playing at the time, especially if his preferred club wasn't involved. There was something to latch on to, to feel satisfaction and delight. “Indiana is one of the most prideful states when it comes to basketball,” said Hoosiers guard Evan Gordon, an Indianapolis native. “It's the capital of basketball, I feel like.”