On senior night at Assembly Hall, the Indiana Hoosiers’ coronation as Big Ten champs went as planned. The game was a different story.
Indiana’s senior night was anticipated by the fans – and apparently designed by the administration – as a celebration of the regular season Big Ten championship. Win or lose, the Hoosiers would leave Assembly Hall holding at least a share of their first Big Ten title since 2002. The latter of those two scenarios came to pass, as Indiana fell to Ohio State by a 67-58 final margin. Considering the depths to which this program sunk during the first three seasons of Crean’s tenure, even a shared conference championship represents a significant accomplishment, but the conflict of emotions following a bitter loss was readily apparent even for a conference champion playing its final game of the year on its home floor.
“We earned the right to cut down the nets, so we’re happy with that,” Jordan Hulls stated when asked about the emotions that came with cutting down the Assembly Hall nets for a conference championship after a loss. “We definitely would have liked to have won.”
The complexities of Tuesday night’s loss were not lost on Tom Crean, who strode into the Assembly Hall media room well after 1:30 A.M to, at long last, address reporters who had shown up to cover the night’s game.
“It’s the epitome of bittersweet as far as I can tell,” Crean said into the microphone on the table before him. “We’re trying to celebrate what these guys have earned, and at the same time, we didn’t earn it tonight… The good news is that all our stuff is correctable; the bottom line is that we have to do that.
IU’s contest with Ohio State had been circled from the beginning of the season as one of the most anticipated senior days in recent memory. There was respect for the Buckeyes, but more attention paid to the night’s significance on a macro level for both the Indiana basketball program and this particular team. For an IU outfit that began the year ranked #1 in the country and that had evolved into a squad that seemed nearly unbeatable at home, losing on a night that meant so much to the senior class and the program as a whole seemed unfathomable, no matter the opponent.
Ohio State spent most of Tuesday night destroying that illusion.
As the season rolled along, a feeling of confidence never faded. Indiana dropped games here and there, but none of their losses felt like games they needed to have. Over the course of the season, they rose to every challenge – North Carolina in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan at Assembly Hall, and road trips to Columbus (Ohio State) and East Lansing (Michigan State).
The loss to Butler in Indianapolis was disappointing, but seemed as though it was a big win for Butler rather than the other way around; dropping road games to Illinois and even to Minnesota were seen as outliers against tough teams with hostile crowds behind them. Before Tuesday night, Indiana’s trips to the center of the ring – the big prizefights, so to speak – had met only success as IU imposed its will on its opponent. This one saw the Hoosiers taste their own blood for the first time.
“We both kind of came out with that edge,” Derek Elston said in discussing the start of the second half. “Somewhere in between there and where they took control of the game though, it felt like too many mental errors were stacked on top of each other and any time you dwell on one of those, you’re just not playing your game anymore.”
The end of Elston’s statement belies an odd disconnect between the Indiana team responsible for a 25-4 record coming into the contest with Ohio State Tuesday night and the group that actually took the floor. The Buckeyes played with the energy level of a team that had been handled on its home court nearly a month before and had something to prove – a tem with some business to attend to. Indiana played a game completely foreign to the type of contest fans have become used to seeing this year.
That fact brings us back to Indiana’s decision to celebrate a shared conference championship after coming up empty in a golden opportunity to clinch the outright title. The planned senior night ceremony had the atmosphere of a funeral before Derek Elston, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford reemerged on the court. The sight of Indiana’s players wearing championship hats, holding the conference trophy and cutting down the nets was incongruent with the loss they had just experienced.
Since the Hoosiers reached the Final Four in 2002, the Indiana fan base has been compelled to look past the current season, and only to the greener pastures that surely lay ahead – Mike Davis’ infamous remark that ‘the cavalry was on the way’, the unfulfilled promise of Marco Killingsworth, a respectable first year from Kelvin Sampson that evolved into a vigil for Eric Gordon’s arrival in Bloomington, and the three seasons of losing that followed the recruiting violations that decimated the program. Even last season, the promise of ‘The Movement’ lay just over the horizon as Indiana made its deepest tournament run in a decade.
Those days are past. Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston – IU’s trio of bedrock seniors – are primed to move on, and both Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are projected as early first-round picks should they elect to enter the NBA draft, and opportunity that will be hard to pass up. The time is now for an Indiana fan base that has spent a decade looking ahead. For those reasons, this year represents a culmination of sorts for this team – this particular epoch of Indiana basketball.
When Crean was asked what the prevailing mood in the locker room was after the game, he took a deep breath and put his face in his hand as he looked to the ceiling.
“I don’t know, fatigue right now, tired ready to go home,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question there’s a disappointment, but at the same time, they’ve earned it … for there to be as that many people (staying for the senior night speeches) with how nasty the weather was and how late at night it was, it really says that these guys have come out and earned it and I don’t want to get away from that; I think that’s important to remember.”
With the heart and soul of this team – Zeller and Oladipo included – likely departing at the end of the season, the 2012-2013 campaign evolved a while ago into a celebration of a storied program experiencing a renaissance as its fan base comes to grips with the idea that the team it’s been waiting for may finally be here. The hats, the trophy and the cutting down of the Assembly Hall nets all seem as though they should belong within the context of not only the season, but the past four years.
It doesn’t feel quite right.
For the first time this season, holes in the framework are apparent. The celebration itself felt hollow – based in the same illusion that made Senior Night a referendum on this team’s destiny rather than a game against an opponent out for revenge and peaking at the right time. A team that has made a season of coming through in big games failed to come through in the biggest game of the year – on a night meant as a coronation, the Hoosiers came up short with a title on the line.
The Tuesday night rolled into Wednesday morning just as Indiana had planned – celebrating a conference championship. What exactly does that mean? That answer just got a little less clear.