LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Author John Feinstein retired the phrase, “Season on the Brink,” at Indiana three decades ago, but several times a season Tom Crean and his players insist on reviving it.

Tuesday night was one of those nights.

On a night when you expected Crean’s players to be insulted by their six-week slide from No. 3 to 25 in the Associated Press college basketball poll, the Hoosiers decided that 35 pretty good minutes would be enough to beat Wisconsin.

It wasn’t.

Wisconsin won, 75-68.

Tough to win when you trail 13-0 and 16-2 before Martha the Mop Lady has disappeared from the video-board.

Tough to win when the visiting team makes half of its 20 shots from distance.

Tough to score when Crean burned 21 puzzling minutes on two players (Zach McRoberts and Freddie McSwain) who offered nothing on offense (0 points, 1 assist, 1 rebound, 1 turnover).

Tough to contend in the Big Ten when your team opens conference play with back-to-back home losses. (Blend Saturday’s stumble against Louisville into the story and the Hoosiers have lost three straight for the first time since March 7, 2015. Bye-bye, Top 25.)

Blend in losses to IPFW and Butler and the Hoosiers sit at 10-5. Their sole NCAA Tournament credentials are their victories against Kansas and North Carolina.

Tough to imagine what people will say if the Hoosiers fail to beat Illinois Saturday in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

But most of all it was tough to determine what Crean’s team was doing over the first four minutes or what the coach was trying to do with his lineup the final nine minutes.

First, the start.

Beaten a week ago by Nebraska and again on Saturday by Louisville, Indiana figured to be ready to launch against the team expected to win the Big Ten.

Go figure. 

Crean’s guys decided to start playing after the Hoosiers were behind 13-0. Or maybe it was when the Badgers had pushed ahead, 16-2. 

Certainly it was after Indiana turned the ball over four times on its first five possessions — and left at least three Wisconsin shooters open for easy shots from distance. Crean used the word ridiculous multiple times to describe the way his team threw the ball away during its start against Louisville last Saturday. Ridiculous fit again.

“We didn’t start on time for some reason,” Crean told ESPN during a halftime interview. 

“Our digs (guards trying to steal the ball from big men inside) were slow. We were so non-existent with the pressure that anything they got were open threes.

“It was like they were in the gym by themselves.”

I can’t write it any better than Crean said it: It was like Wisconsin was in the gym by itself. Perfect.

Wisconsin is a veteran team that usually buries teams it leads by 14 points in the first half. Ethan Happ is a skilled and fundamentally sound low-post player. Bronson Koenig can make jump shots with anybody. Nigel Hayes is already one of the Top 10 scorers in Wisconsin history.

Greg Gard has the Badgers playing the same savvy, efficient style that Bo Ryan installed and used as Wisconsin won 15 of its last 17 against Indiana.

Somehow Indiana rallied. 

Cut it to 16-10. Then to 24-20. Indiana actually led 35-34 when James Blackmon Jr. stuck a three-point shot with 2:05 to play in the first half.

But only for 25 seconds.

That’s the way it was all night.

Indiana never led by more than two points The Hoosiers only led for 1 minute and 40 seconds. Every time Indiana made a play to take the lead, Wisconsin made better plays to regain and then rebuild its lead.

Making 10 of 20 shots from the three-point line helped, especially with Indiana struggling (5 for 15) from distance again, certainly fueled Wisconsin. 

Indiana averaged a solid 1.15 points per possession. But Wisconsin, as usual, was even better, scoring 1.21. Happ made 8 of 11 shots. Koenig was 5 for 5 from distance, unguarded on at least three of the attempts. The Hoosiers did a reasonable job with Hayes, who had only 10.

But this wasn’t all on the players. With 9:08 left the game was tied at 54. This was Crean’s lineup: Thomas Bryant at center, McSwain and McRoberts at forward, Juwan Morgan and Blackmon at guard.

Over the next 4:38 Indiana was outscored 12-5. McRoberts, a walk-on, missed a jumper. McSwain, a junior-college transfer, drove into the lane and made a turnover. They weren’t ready for the moment. It certainly showed.

Crean made a few more substitutions but on the offensive end there were too many plodding possessions when it appeared Indiana was playing three against five. Freshman De'Ron Davis has become Indiana's best low-point threat. He scored a dozen points in 18 minutes and should have played more.

After shooting poorly against Louisville, guard Robert Johnson did not start. He's been Indiana's best all-around player this season. Hard to understand why McRoberts or McSwain took 21 minutes from Johnson, Davis or Bryant.

IU did cut Wisconsin’s lead to 66-63 but an Indiana turnover followed by a Happ layup followed by an Indiana miss followed by a Wisconsin three and Wisconsin had the all clear to celebrate a road win.

What did Indiana have? Less than four full days to figure out how to avoid getting buried in the Big Ten race 10 days into conference play.

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