The Hoosiers aren’t going dancing.
Any flickering chances Indiana had at making the NCAA tournament were snuffed out Thursday following a 64-54 loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Though the Hoosiers started the game quite poorly, almost sleepwalking through the first 10 minutes, they’re not solely to blame for their early exit from the conference tournament. Yes, Indiana had 16 turnovers in the game, but credit the Illinois defense for locking down the Hoosiers with a great game plan.
The Illini shut down Indiana’s star big man Noah Vonleh, the newly minted Big Ten Freshman of the Year, double-teaming him at every possible opportunity. Vonleh, the conference’s leading rebounder, went for just five points and six rebounds on Thursday.
Guards Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell attempted to make up for it, combining for five 3-pointers in the first half. And the Hoosiers certainly weren’t blown out, finishing the first half down two points and leading during the second half’s opening moments.
But the Illini defense just kept answering. Big man Nnanna Egwu, who had the task of defending Vonleh much of the day, finished with five blocks. As a team, the Illini had six steals. It was a return to the form of a couple weeks ago that saw Illinois hold four straight opponents under 50 points. And while Indiana scored 54, it was that same kind of defense on display from the orange and blue.
The Hoosiers mounted a late push at an NCAA tournament berth, at one point late in the season winning three of four games including victories over ranked Iowa and Ohio State teams. Coupled with wins over Michigan and Wisconsin earlier in the season and a host of quality losses, it was possible another big win and a good showing in the Big Ten Tournament could have pushed Indiana into the Big Dance. But the Hoosiers finished the regular season with losses to Michigan and Nebraska, and this first-round exit figures to seal their fate.
The good news for Tom Crean is he has a young team, and if Vonleh remains in school — his name is near the top of several NBA mock-draft boards — a team of Ferrell, Vonleh, Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams could make some noise next season.