Indiana lost to Notre Dame Saturday and will finish non-conference play without a quality win.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (WDRB) – The calendar says we're two weeks into December. The calendar is as misleading as a Ponzi scheme.
This wasn't a December basketball game that Indiana lost to Notre Dame, 79-72, Saturday at Bankers' Life Fieldhouse. This was a game that will resonate into March. This was a game the Hoosiers needed to win, but didn't.
This was a game that put Indiana in Joe Lunardi's doghouse, on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
It was just one game. It's only game 11 in a season that will stretch over at least 32 games and nearly three more months. What was the big deal?
This was the big deal: When it's March and the Hoosiers (8-3) find themselves scrambling for every available credential that says Indiana belongs in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, they will find themselves naked in one critical category: quality non-conference wins.
They don't have any.
They're not going to have any. The only games Indiana has remaining before Big Ten play begins are Nicholls State and Kennesaw State. No need to check the computer rankings of that pair. They're irrelevant.
UConn? Could not stop Shabazz Napier when it mattered and lost by one.
Syracuse? Could not solve Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone and lost by 17.
Notre Dame? This was a game Indiana never led. In the second half, the Hoosiers tied the game twice and cut the Irish lead to one point five times. A missed shot. A turnover. A blown defensive assignment. Clutch rebounds and shots by Mike Brey's team. A partridge in a pear tree. There was always a Hoosier hiccup. Indiana never made Notre Dame show substantial fear.
"Any team that's going to be successful forms an identity," IU coach Tom Crean said. "It's formed over a period of time. What I'm learning with a very young team is that every time you think that you're taking a step toward that identity, it's very easy to take a step or two back."
Notre Dame played like a veteran group that burned with desire because the Irish were embarrassed by losing to North Dakota State Wednesday. The Irish start three seniors and a junior, guys who grasp that March is never as far away as it seems. The Irish also lost a home game to – ugh – Indiana State in November. They got it. The had to win.
"I think there was a sense of urgency," Notre Dame center Garrick Sherman said. "We're not stupid. We knew we had to have this one … The sense of urgency was through the roof."
Now the sense of urgency needs to shift into the Indiana locker room. Crean's team will likely have to win 10 or maybe 11 Big Ten games to make the NCAA Tournament. That means winning away from Assembly Hall. Indiana has won once – against Washington – away from Assembly Hall this season.
That's a cloudy forecast, although the Big Ten took a major wobble this weekend as Iowa (Iowa State), Michigan (Arizona), Illinois (Oregon), Purdue (Butler) and Penn State (Princeton) also lost.
The Indiana freshmen played like ordinary freshmen, not one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the nation. Foul trouble limited Noah Vonleh to 21 minutes. He missed his usual double-double, finishing with 8 points and 6 rebounds. Sherman, who scored 16, showed him a few fifth-year senior tricks with positioning and pivots. Troy Williams failed to score in a dozen minutes and looked lost on defense.
Luke Fischer is 6 feet 11 but needs more time in the weight room to finish at the rim. He missed all three of his shots. Devin Davis did not score.
"We had guys that it was just a little bit too bright in there today for our young team to the task that we had," Crean said.
Stanford Robinson, another freshman, played his best game, scoring six points, grabbing three rebounds and knocking loose a steal in 17 minutes. Will Sheehey scored 22, which was four more than he had scored in IU's last four games combined. Evan Gordon and Yogi Ferrell each made three three-point shots.
Indiana shot 20 threes and made seven. That's one more than Notre Dame made and two more than the Hoosiers usually make.
That didn't please Crean. In fact, it sounded as if he considered it a reason that Indiana lost because the focus on jump shots moved the Hoosiers away from their usual strengths – thriving at the foul line and clobbering teams on the glass.
Said Crean, "Like I told our guys: We made one more three than Notre Dame did and lost the game. That's not a good trade off … We're not a team that's going to be successful shooting a lot of jump shots."
Now Crean has another thing to tell his guys: It's going to take 10 Big Ten wins to grind into the NCAA Tournament. Losing to UConn, Syracuse and now Notre Dame ensured that.