EAST LANSING, Mich. – Indiana coach Archie Miller was curt when asked whether the Hoosiers are pressing late in the season as they try to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.
"No, no, not at all," the fourth-year coach said.
So why have the Hoosiers lost four in a row during the most crucial stretch of the season, including tonight's 64-58 defeat at the hands of Michigan State at the Breslin Center?
"We're playing very good teams."
That was all the explanation the coach could offer and to be fair to Miller, it's true. All four of Indiana's losses in that stretch have come against teams that are likely to make the NCAA Tournament (certain in Michigan's case and nearly certain in Rutgers' case). The simplest explanation is that Indiana has lost four in a row because it's playing against better teams. Unlike the opponents they've faced in the last two weeks, the Hoosiers are not tournament-bound. Instead, they'll be watching the Big Dance on television for the fourth consecutive season that the tournament has been held. That hasn't happened at Indiana since 1972.
Performances like the one Indiana turned in against Michigan State are the reason why the Hoosiers will almost certainly not earn a tournament bid. In a must-win game against another team in desperate need of a victory, the Hoosiers played hard, but shot just 33% from the field, got only nine points (two in the second half) from Trayce Jackson-Davis and went an abysmal 2 for 20 from beyond the 3-point line. One possession sums up the Hoosiers' night: with IU trailing 53-52 and less than three minutes remaining, the ball went in to Jackson-Davis in the post. As it had all night, Michigan State sent a second defender at him and the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball made the smart play and passed out to a wide-open Al Durham beyond the arc. Durham, a senior starter and a career 1,000-point scorer, caught the ball, shot in rhythm and proceeded to miss everything, launching the ball two feet long and out of bounds. On the very next Michigan State possession, Indianapolis native Aaron Henry knocked in a 3 to put the Spartans up four and Indiana never threatened again.
"The ball didn't go in," Miller said of his team's poor shooting night. "I mean, period. They're inside-out 3s, they're drive-and-kick 3s, they're 1-2-step, tee-ball 3s. They didn't go in. There's not a whole lot to talk about. The way Michigan State plays, they're going to give you some 3-point shots because of our inside game. When we curled it, when we drove it, when we hit the paint, we made the correct pass, but guys have to (make) them and they didn't go in."
Miller is right again: Indiana did run decent offense much of the night and its shots simply didn't fall. The problem is that that has been the explanation on and off for the last four years and the Hoosiers seem no closer to solving the issue. Freshmen Anthony Leal, Jordan Geronimo and Khristian Lander were a combined 0 for 3 from deep tonight and only Leal seems as though he might eventually grow into a solid 3-point shooter. Missing Armaan Franklin – out with a foot injury – hurt in this one and the addition of Tennessee-Martin transfer Parker Stewart might help somewhat next season, but it's not as though the Hoosiers have a cadre of shooters waiting around the corner. There's every possibility we're sitting here having the exact same discussions a year from now.
Consider also the relative performances of Jackson-Davis and Henry tonight. In the first matchup between these teams, the Indiana forward exploded for a career-high 34 points while Henry had 27, including 16 in the second half of the Spartans' 78-71 win Feb. 20. Tonight, the Spartans adjusted, packing the paint to make life difficult for Jackson-Davis and the result was the first game all season in which the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball did not score in double figures. Henry, meanwhile, had 12 straight points down the stretch, 18 in the second half and 22 in the game as Indiana was once again powerless to stop him. Henry might as well have had a bright, flashing sign above his head in the final minutes that said, "The ball is coming to me" and Indiana still couldn't slow him down. That's an execution issue that simply can't happen, especially in a game as important as this one.
Following its fourth straight loss and the evaporation of its remaining NCAA Tournament hopes, all that remains now is for Indiana to play out the string Saturday when it takes on Purdue in West Lafayette. The Hoosiers will try to avoid a ninth consecutive loss to their in-state rivals and they'll probably play hard for most of the game. They'll also probably lose, because they aren't very good and haven't been in five years.