Rutgers go dancing and Indiana go to church

The first play-in game of this year’s NCAA tournament was not in Dayton, but in Bloomington.

For the winner of Wednesday night’s Rutgers-Indiana game, a spot in the NCAA Tournament would be a near certainty. And for the loser, there is still work to be done on a schedule that only guarantees 2 more opportunities to do that work.

For most of the evening, it looked like the Hoosiers would be the team breathing comfortably on Draft Sunday.

Instead, it will be a nervy week and a half in Indiana. Rutgers closed the game on a 21-11 run in the final 9 minutes, slipping away from town with a 66-63 victory when Ron Harper Jr. drilled in for a 3 with 2.1 seconds left.

All Rutgers need to do now is avoid overturning the pot in their home final against a slippery Penn State team. Win there and the Scarlet Knights will be 18-12 overall with a 12-8 mark in the Big Ten. At this point, it doesn’t matter what happens when the Big Ten tournament kicks off in Indianapolis in 2 weeks.

The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are heading to their fifth straight missed NCAA Tournament.

Yes, it should come with an asterisk. Indiana was obviously tied to the NCAA in 2020 before the pandemic wiped out much more than a basketball tournament. But if that happens, Indiana basketball will be in its longest gap between tournament appearances since 1967-73.

So, as Rutgers prepares to go dancing, maybe it’s time for Indiana to start praying. Because the task that awaits the Hoosiers is not enviable, even if they do not have to leave their country of origin.

Why Another Victory Matters

If Indiana loses to Purdue in its season finale as Rutgers defeats Penn State, both teams will head to the Big Ten tournament with 18-12 records.

But these records are not created equal.

Rutgers is now 6-5 against opponents in Quad 1 and 9-9 against opponents in the top 2 Quads in the NCAA NET rankings. Indiana is 3-6 against Quad 1 and 6-10 against the top 2 Quads overall.

The Scarlet Knights have 3 gross non-conference losses, which the Hoosiers were able to avoid. But the selection committee will surely place less weight on that than on the strength of Rutgers’ best wins — of which it has twice as much as Indiana.

The Hoosiers could do that academically with a win over the Boilermakers, sure, but that’s an order bigger than Purdue’s 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey. Indiana hasn’t won at Mackey Arena since 2013. The Hoosiers were ranked third in the nation when they won that game, which was their first win at Purdue since 2006 at the time.

In order to secure their first tournament spot since 2016, all IU has to do is win at Mackey for the third time in 16 years.

So realistically, it will take a win at Gainbridge Fieldhouse for Indiana to reach the Big Dance.

Indiana’s Cursed Temple

Barring a win at Purdue, IU is locked in the No. 9 seed and a tip at 11:30 a.m. Thursday morning of the Big Ten tournament. Unless weird, the Hoosiers will draw Michigan or Michigan State in this game.

Neither is a particularly good game for Mike Woodson’s team, which is another reason why beating Rutgers would have been huge.

Besides the loss at Northwestern where Woodson suspended 5 players, Indiana’s 2 worst performances this season have been against the Wolverines and Spartans.

Michigan shot 57% from the field against the Hoosiers – 8 percentage points more than any other opponent this season.

Against the Spartans, it was the opposite. Indiana couldn’t make a bucket if there was a ladder to the ledge. The Hoosiers — notably the second-worst shooting team in the Big Ten — were a season low at 33.9% on the field at Michigan State.

So it’s a scenario of choosing your poison. The team you can’t stop, or the team you can’t score against.

The good news — perhaps the only good news — is that Indiana is almost certainly in the game if they can survive their first-round matchup. Next up would be top-seeded Wisconsin, which is actually a team the Hoosiers compete against quite favorably.

Beating the Badgers would be the icing on the cake, but a loss to a potential 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t hurt the Hoosiers.

Unfortunately, getting this far is more than half the battle.

Rutgers’ regrets will be many

If Indiana plays another game at Assembly Hall this season — and given the road ahead, that first-round NIT game seems more likely than not — the Hoosiers have no one to blame but themselves.

We expect Indiana’s offense to fade for long stretches every game, and that was the case again Wednesday night. But this time, the Hoosiers didn’t play well enough on defense to make up for it.

Rutgers had 41 points in the second half, scoring on 13 of their last 19 possessions.

Unfortunately, this is now a trend. Minnesota scored 46 second-half goals against IU on Sunday. Ohio State had 17 points in overtime against the Hoosiers on Feb. 21.

Whether it’s the various injuries or simply the record of the season on the legs of the players, Indiana does not play defense at the same level as at the beginning of the year.

And while defense isn’t a constant, Indiana’s season is all about a wing and a prayer.

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