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Mike Lopresti | | February 22, 2022

Mike Woodson tries to get blue blood Indiana on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble amid frosty February

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — We begin with the unofficial list of college basketball traditional royalty. You know the names always mentioned; Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, Indiana . . .

Well, about that last one. The Hoosiers’ blue blood membership needs exploring here on the slippery side of the NCAA tournament bubble. There are pressing issues for Indiana. It is, in fact, condition red.

The latest bad news for the Hoosiers is losing a game they could have won here Monday night. Came from 11 points down against Ohio State to get a four-point lead and the ball with 83 seconds left, then went bump in the night and were pancaked in overtime. That makes five defeats in a row and 0-5 for the month, which is nobody’s idea of how to wow the selection committee.

“We’ve got to find a win somewhere,” first-year coach Mike Woodson was saying afterward. True enough, but there’s more than a simple wobbly February troubling Indiana.

At this moment on Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology for ESPN, the Hoosiers are on the nervous list of Last Four In. After the top-16 reveal Saturday, March Madness correspondent Andy Katz listed the Hoosiers as a No. 11 seed and the fifth-to-last at-large team in the field.

The NCAA’s NET rankings list them at a very so-so No. 43. They’re 2-7 in true road games, not a good look. Should Indiana go unloved and uncalled on Selection Sunday, that would make five Hoosier-less tournaments in a row. You have to go back 50 years to 1972, the season they hired a young guy from Army named Bob Knight, to match that.

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There’s more. This is the 20th anniversary of the golden March when Indiana upset No. 1 Duke in the Sweet 16 and rolled to the national championship game before losing to Maryland. The last hurrah of the Knight era, right? Wrong. He had been fired two years earlier. It was Mike Davis at the steering wheel, and it is curious how that team is often overlooked in Hoosier lore.

“We didn’t win the championship,” Davis reminded the other day from his current post at Detroit Mercy. “But we did get there. We’re the last team to go to the Final Four.”

Make that the only Final Four at Indiana in 29 years. The Hoosiers’ last Sweet 16 was six years ago. So was the last time they finished in the top five in the Big Ten. They’re 16-37 against ranked opponents since 2016. Doesn’t sound too blue bloodish, does it?

Woodson is a legendary Hoosier who in 1980 was so good after returning from injury that he was named Big Ten MVP despite appearing in only six league games. He scored double figures in all 60 conference games he played for Indiana. And now he’s assigned to bring back the glory days. This February has reinforced how difficult that will be.

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Tradition still abounds in Bloomington and yesterday is still alive. The five national championship banners still hang. The trainer has been there 41 years, the team doctor 42, the radio play-by-play man 49. The warm-up pants are still candy-striped. But modern times have been a trial.

In some ways, this Indiana team is an enigma. The Hoosiers have the best field-goal percentage defense in the Big Ten, and if the season ended today, their 38.8 percentage allowed would be the finest at the school in 23 years. Trayce Jackson-Davis is the sixth-leading scorer with the third-best shooting numbers in the conference.

And still, they keep finding varied ways to lose games that would make Selection Sunday so much easier for them.

They scored 110 points against Syracuse. But gave up 112.

They blew a 22-point lead at Wisconsin.

They played Illinois tough the first half at home but scored only 21 points in the second half and lost by 17.

They ran out of bodies at Northwestern after Woodson suspended five players for curfew violations, and in the Wisconsin rematch, they couldn’t stop Johnny Davis, who scored his team’s last 13 points.

Monday night was highly promising as the players gathered around Woodson during a timeout with a 63-59 lead and 1:23 left. A road win over a ranked team would be tonic. But the Hoosiers came out of the timeout and promptly turned the ball over. The Buckeyes hit two free throws and Indiana’s Tamar Bates missed a 3-pointer. Down to the final seconds Ohio State forced overtime on an E.J. Liddell open dunk. Overtime was all Buckeyes and it ended 80-69. Ohio State scored 21 points in the game’s final six minutes. The Hoosiers are now ninth in the Big Ten standings, still 16-10 overall but with the road to March snow-covered and icy.

Wait a minute. When a team loses a lead in the final seconds, isn’t it supposed to be with a desperate 3-pointer by the opponent, or maybe a tough shot in traffic in the lane? But an open dunk? Just part of the Woodson’s pain and challenge at the moment.

“Up four, we come out of the timeout and throw the ball away. It gave them hope again . . . You’re up two with 15 seconds (left), you’ve got to get a stop and we give up a layup,” he said. “We’ve got to get them over the hump. I wish I had the magic pill to get them over the hump right now. We were right there. In winning close games you’ve got to do everything right.”

Which they aren’t. Woodson has been candid during the season’s travails. When Indiana was humbled in rebounding at Penn State, he called out his star: “I point the finger straight at Trayce." When he replaced all five starters late against Illinois: “I took them out because they weren’t playing well.” When he suspended the five players at Northwestern: “I’m not here to mess around with guys who don’t want to do what’s asked of them.”

When the second game against Wisconsin slipped away at the end: “They are looking over their shoulders again, like in past years, with the things that have happened to them down the stretch.

“We’ve got to learn how to win.”

Well, they have 16 times. Thoroughly whipped Ohio State in Bloomington. Put down Notre Dame. Knocked off Purdue as the student body stormed the court. But even the Boilermaker victory had an unfortunate postscript. Guard Rob Phinisee came off the bench to score 20 Indiana points against the team from his hometown and was a folk hero for a day. That was Jan. 20, more than a month ago. Phinisee has scored two points since. Plantar fasciitis.

Other numbers might also explain some of the problem. Indiana is 212th in the nation in turnover margin, 293rd in 3-pointers per game, 271st in free throw percentage.

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“I’m not putting it on the players. As a coach I’ve always put it on myself,” Woodson said. “I’ve got to learn and help these guys get over the hump. Yeah, I didn’t play the last play where we gave up the layup, or I didn’t throw the ball away when we were up four. But I’ve got to mentally somehow get these guys to understand time/score situations and being comfortable in making plays down the stretch. That’s how you win basketball games.”

And they need to win several in a hurry. “We’ve got to go home and try to get our mojo back,” Woodson said. Beating Maryland Thursday in Bloomington is essential. Same for the trip to Minnesota. The March 2 home date with Rutgers may be the ultimate bubble game. And then there’s March 5 at Purdue, where the renowned Mackey Arena throng will be screaming for revenge for Jan. 20.

Should the Hoosiers need to do more work in the Big Ten tournament, at least it’s in friendly Indianapolis. But alas, that’s another issue. The league tournament has been a train wreck for Indiana.

In the 23 years of the event, the Hoosiers are 13-23, have never won it, and their only championship game appearance was 21 years ago. They haven’t even advanced to the semifinals since 2013. And remember, half of the Big Ten tournaments are in Indianapolis. Not a Hoosier home game, but close. It hasn’t helped.

So if Indiana needs a strong closing argument for the committee, it will have to overturn is own history. Refurbishing an aura is not easy work. “I think the Mike Woodson era will get them back there,” Davis said. “That’s what they want.”

But it’s just a little odd, to see an A-list program finding it this hard to get into the NCAA tournament.

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