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Illinois 67, Indiana 66: NCAA Tournament insurance will have to wait

In a tightly contested thriller at Illinois, Indiana fell just short, losing 67-66 and missing a big opportunity on Sunday afternoon.

The loss would have added to the tally of Indiana’s road wins, which stands at just two, and IU would have welcomed another for the sake of the team’s NCAA Tournament resume.

Additionally, now with an 18-11 record and 8-10 record in the Big Ten, Indiana has put itself in difficult position, again. The Hoosiers are currently the 11th-best team in the Big Ten after the 0-2 week, which means if the season ended today, Indiana would be without a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and be playing on the opening Wednesday of the conference tournament.

There haven’t been many games that have come down to the wire for Indiana this year, but this one lived up to the billing.

With the Hoosiers down 65-63 and 13 seconds remaining, Trayce Jackson-Davis missed both free throws at the line but got his offensive rebound. He passed it off to Rob Phinisee, who slipped, turned the ball over and Illinois called timeout to seal the Hoosiers’ fate.

Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu hit both free throws with four seconds left to give Illinois a four-point lead and to give the Illini some insurance before Phinisee hit a meaningless three at the buzzer to finalize the score.

Other than just the missed free throws, Indiana missed a number of opportunities, and this was a game it could have very well won had they made a few minor changes to the game plan.

From a positive perspective, Indiana showed a lot of growth to play like the team did Sunday. Offensively, it was a much smoother showing compared to just three days ago at Purdue when Indiana equaled their season-low scoring output of 49 points for the game.

Indiana shot 10 percent better Sunday, 24-for-59 (40.7 percent), compared to Thursday at Purdue when the team was a dreadful 15-for-49 (30.6 percent) from the field. That aspect was improved as well as the passing; the team doubled its assist total from Thursday, from six to 12.

While the offense improved from just a few days prior, the fact that this showing came on the road was also notable. Positive offensive road performances from Indiana have been a rarity all season.

Jerome Hunter. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

The late-season offensive development is good for Indiana as it moves closer and closer to Big Ten and (potentially) NCAA Tournament play where there will be no comfort of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in any sense, with all neutral site games.

In terms of the big picture though, Indiana’s road woes of having a one-dimensional offense persisted Sunday. Battling one-dimensional offensive struggles has plagued Indiana all year when the team plays away from Bloomington, and it’s a large reason why IU will have just two road wins entering postseason play.

Sunday was a bit different though as to what part of the offense was effective and what part wasn’t. Usually, it’s the interior presence and post play that gets the job done for Indiana, home or away, and the outside shooting doesn’t show up.

Sunday was the complete opposite. Indiana only scored 28 of its 66 points in the paint with the big men having trouble. Jackson-Davis was the second-leading scorer with 12 points, but he had 10 of his 12 in the first half and couldn’t get anything going after that.

Justin Smith contributed eight points to the post effort, but Joey Brunk, De’Ron Davis and Race Thompson did not help supplement much, each only scoring two points.

Much of the trouble came from dealing with an excellent rim protector in Illinois freshman Kofi Cockubrn, who terrorized Indiana all afternoon. The 7-foot center had six blocks and really made any look Indiana had inside, blocked or not, far more difficult.

Cockburn’s stellar defense forced Indiana to get creative scoring-wise and the Hoosiers turned to an unusual reliance on the deep ball, hitting many timely 3-pointers. Indiana shot great from deep, going 8-for-16 on the day.

While the 3-point shooting was instrumental to IU’s offensive attack, the total output was incomplete without the complimenting interior scoring. That gap in production from the two areas of scoring shows, and can be shown the other way around too, how Indiana can’t win the big games without some of both.

The team needs a reliable dose of both parts to its attack in order to have legitimate success in March. It doesn’t have to be spectacular either way, but a one-dimensional offense isn’t going to win games against anyone come tournament time.

Indiana will have two regular season games remaining to work the kinks out in its game plans before the Big Ten Tournament starts in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers will host Minnesota on Wednesday, and Wisconsin on Saturday to conclude the regular season and ultimately materialize an NCAA Tournament appearance, or a fourth consecutive absence depending on each game’s results.

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