Syracuse surrounded Cody Zeller and his Indiana teammates while defeating the Hoosiers, 61-50.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDRB) – When the post-game questions roll over into a discussion about underclassmen making their decisions about leaving for the NBA, it can only mean one thing:
Bye bye, basketball season.
Indiana's two prime underclassmen, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, didn't have any clearer answers for the NBA questions than they did for the ones about how Syracuse gave the Hoosiers a punishing 40-minute lecture on the ferocity of a zone defense.
Make it Syracuse 61, Indiana 50 – and make certain you understand this is hardly the way the players on Tom Crean's team expected this season to end. It was 2:21 Friday morning before the IU team bus finally rolled out of the Verizon Center. That's nearly 2 ½ hours after the game ended – and three games before the players expected the season to end.
Anything less than a Final Four was guaranteed to feel this empty for a team that spent more weeks at Number One than anybody in the country. And the feeling was empty. Extremely empty.
"There's no word in the dictionary that can describe it," said Oladipo, who wrapped a towel around his head as he walked out of the locker room to a post-game press conference. He cried. On the way to the podium and again in the locker room.
"It just (stinks)," said Jordan Hulls, one of the team's seniors. "I won't be happy for probably another 10 years about this game." There were tears in his eyes, too. The guy who leaves atop the record book as the one who played more games that any Hoosier did not want to leave with an empty 0-for-6. But it happened.
"We all thought this was the year to win this whole thing," said Remy Abell, the Indiana guard from Eastern High School. "Now that it's done, it's hard to believe."
Hard to believe, but easy to explain: Indiana had no answers for the trademark Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone that Syracuse plays. The Hoosiers had no place to hide Hulls and Yogi Ferrell, the team's undersized six-foot guards. They had no control of this game, not at any point.
Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, the starting Syracuse backcourt, outscored Hulls and Ferrell, the starting Indiana backcourt, 38-0. Unless the other three guys on your team are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, no team can overcome a mismatch that substantial.
Carter-Williams and Triche settled into a comfort zone of understanding they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted – and they never budged. It was the most points Carter-Williams has scored this season, double his average.
Indiana won the Big Ten regular-season title, but zone is not the defense of choice in that conference. Only Northwestern plays it. And the Hoosiers' lack of familiarity against the zone showed. They didn't make a field goal in the game's first six minutes. They threw the ball away a dozen times in the first half as they raced to tying their season-high with 19 turnovers.
"It's not like they full-court pressed us," Abell said. "We just turned the ball over."
"I wouldn't say we were tight," said IU forward Will Sheehey. "We just didn't come out with the same pace that we normally play with it."
Crean benched Ferrell to start the second half, but obviously he wasn't the only problem. Louisville blitzed Syracuse with 56 second-half points in the Big East Tournament final by moving Gorgui Dieng into the middle of the zone and letting Montrezl Harrell run the baseline. Luke Hancock led the perimeter parade. Scoring was easy that night.
Crean asked Zeller to play the role that Dieng played. He wasn't the answer. Indiana didn't have an answer.
Zeller had more shots blocked (five) than he had go in the basket (three). He had a pair of assists, but Syracuse rarely had to adjust to anything that Zeller – or Indiana -- was doing. Indiana made three of 15 three-point shots, tying their second-worst total and shooting percentage this season.
"They collapsed really quickly," Zeller said. "They're long and athletic. Inside it was tough to do anything. They come from a lot of different angles. They're the best at it. We haven't seen it much all year."
In the end, seven Indiana players committed at least one turnover, but only five of Crean's players contributed a field goal. It was Carter-Williams and Triche using their combined height advantage of 10 inches on Hulls and Ferrell over and over and over.
A season that featured the school's first outright Big Ten title in two decades, now includes this question that will be asked over and over:
Are Zeller, a sophomore, and Oladipo, a junior, leaving early for the NBA?
Having his shot swatted so many times should make Zeller consider what he needs to add to his game -- more resolve to finish near the basket. Oladipo seems more certain to be departing, although he wasn't ready to say goodbye.
"I have no clue," Zeller said. "I don't how it goes. I don't know how it happens from here. I've just put everything into this team, this tournament, so I haven't thought about it at all."
"Not a clue," Oladipo said. "I'm not really worried about it right now."
But Syracuse made certain that they'll be worrying about it considerably sooner than Oladipo and Zeller thought they would.