CHICAGO — Indiana fell short in the Big Ten Tournament once again. This time, it was Penn State defeating Indiana 77-73 to advance to the Big Ten Championship.
By the under-16 timeout in the first half, Indiana got out to a 12-6 start. But after that, the Nittany Lions took control. Penn State went on a 13-0 run to take the lead, and the Hoosiers never led again.
IU tied the game at 47 midway through the second half. Penn State responded with an 11-2 spurt. The Hoosiers trailed by 15 with 2:05 remaining but managed to get within a point with 33 seconds left. After Penn State buried a pair of free throws to build its lead to 76-73, IU guard Jalen Hood-Schifino misfired on a 3-pointer that would have tied the game.
The late comeback effort fell short. The Hoosiers have an issue that has plagued them far beyond this game.
Indiana hasn’t fully controlled a game in quite some time. The Hoosiers are 4-4 in their past eight outings. In those four wins, Indiana never led for more than 21 minutes in regulation. IU plays solid halves. It plays well in five-minute intervals. But it hasn’t played a complete, 40-minute game in over a month.
“I think we played lackadaisical in stretches throughout the game,” Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said. “We would make pushes, but then we would kind of relax, and they would start to step on us a little bit. But we need that intensity throughout the whole game.”
This Indiana team is skilled, but not complete. The Hoosiers have high aspirations in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and brief moments of high-caliber play won’t get this squad where it wants to go. Sometimes it looks like IU can beat any team in the country. Other times, it looks like a team that can be eliminated quickly in a single-elimination format.
“If we could get a 40-minute ballgame each and every time you step out, it makes life a lot easier for you as a coach and as players playing,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said.
To prove the Hoosiers aren’t complete, look no further than Woodson trotting out a seven-man rotation in Saturday’s game. In an elimination game, Woodson couldn’t trust more than seven guys to play at an adept level.
The players that got action for Indiana weren’t playing at an irreplaceable level. Indiana’s starting backcourt of Hood-Schifino and Trey Galloway combined to score 13 points while shooting 5-for-18. Miller Kopp was 3-for-9. Race Thompson scored 10 points, but it took him 10 field-goal attempts to get there.
Indiana would’ve loved to sit one of those players for a better option, but there was no better option. Or at the very least, there was no option that Woodson trusted to put up a decent performance.
Starting guard Xavier Johnson broke his right foot in December and will not return this season. The Hoosiers don’t have another ball-handling guard available, so Johnson’s injury cut the rotation down a player. Jordan Geronimo has been in and out with a leg injury, and after a poor performance against Maryland on Friday, Geronimo did not play against Penn State.
Right now, there’s not a lot of room for error for the IU players that see the court. Woodson often has to leave players in the game regardless of if they’re executing or not. Indiana has experimented with freshmen Kaleb Banks and CJ Gunn, but neither was consistent enough to stay in the rotation. Indiana will likely maintain its airtight seven-man rotation for the remainder of the season.
IU will likely be named a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. The Hoosiers are undoubtedly skilled enough to win two games and advance to the second weekend of the tournament. They’re also vulnerable enough to get upset.
“Somehow, I've got to get them to understand that you're going to have to commit for 40 minutes,” Woodson said. “Because it can be one minute, two seconds, a second that can cost you a tournament victory.”
Indiana has a couple more days to find its A-game before it travels to its first-round site. The Hoosiers’ next loss will be their last loss, so now it’s time to show there is another level to reach.