A season of slow torture became much worse Sunday, putting Indiana’s NCAA Tournament hopes in peril.
In a must-win game inside lifeless Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, another flat performance doomed Indiana to a 75-63 loss to Michigan.
It was the kind of effort that afterwards had IU coach Tom Crean lamenting the ongoing lack of leadership on the court and the struggles of a backcourt that failed to steer the Hoosiers in the necessary direction.
The Hoosiers needed at least one win this week against the likes of Big Ten title contender Purdue and Michigan, a team also fighting to get off the tournament bubble.
Instead, Indiana (15-11, 5-8) received nothing for its troubles, putting itself in imminent danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four seasons.
“I’m trying to be proactive, and I’m not shirking responsibility one iota. It falls on me,” Crean said. “One thing I’ve learned in nine years, it all falls on me. But the bottom line is that we’ve got to do something to get communication up.”
Though the Hoosiers have five regular-season games with which to work, it’s a daunting stretch that features four contests away from Bloomington. After going 17-0 at Assembly Hall last season, the Hoosiers have enjoyed far less success at home this year.
They’re 4-4 on Branch McCracken Court, and have now lost back-to-back home games for the second time since the start of conference play. Michigan’s win was only its second in Bloomington in that program’s past 19 trips.
Derrick Walton led the Wolverines (16-9, 6-6) with 25 points, while Mo Wagner posted a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds.
After falling to the Boilermakers on Thursday, this was a much needed opportunity for Indiana to salvage the homestand and keep the NCAA Tournament within reach.
Now, with three consecutive losses and five in their last six games, the Hoosiers are barely staying afloat in the tournament conversation.
“It all falls on the upperclassmen, me, James (Blackmon Jr.), guys that have been here,” junior guard Robert Johnson said. “We have to come with a consistent level of effort, communication. Those are things that we always have to have within the game. And I think we’ll be good if we do those.”
IU never led Michigan and twice trailed by as many as 13 points on a day Blackmon and Johnson struggled to get going.
Blackmon, who played in his second consecutive game since returning from a leg injury, Johnson and Thomas Bryant combined to shoot 7-for-22 from the field.
The struggles of Blackmon and Johnson, who each went scoreless during the first half, led to a paltry shooting performance from 3-point range, where IU made merely four of its 19 shots.
Indiana didn’t make a 3-pointer until the 13:28 mark of the second half. Blackmon hit the shot, which also accounted for his first points of the game.
Blackmon didn’t attempt his first field goal until more than eight minutes into the game, while Johnson didn’t take one until the final minute of the half. Johnson didn’t find his first points until a 3-pointer nearing the midway mark of the second period.
For Indiana to shake its funk and author a more encouraging end to the season, Blackmon, Johnson and Bryant need to be the players their teammates lean on.
Sunday’s performance didn’t cut it.
“Immaturity in the back court,” Crean said, pointing to the central reason for IU’s struggles in the wake of injuries. “We don’t play both ends of the floor with the same purpose that we have to play when our shots aren’t going. And we’ve had injuries in there, too. But that’s got to change. … Thomas Bryant is playing his tail off to become a leader of the team. And he needs a little more help.”
Meanwhile, Indiana’s offense relied mainly on the contributions of De’Ron Davis and Josh Newkirk to function.
Davis was in control and consistent in the post, scoring a team-high 13 points for IU, which travels to Minnesota on Wednesday. Newkirk and Juwan Morgan each added 11 points.
“I loved the way he played,” Crean said of Davis, who helped IU score 42 points in the paint.
But the Indiana coach saw little else in a positive light.
The Hoosiers committed 15 turnovers, helping the Wolverines to 20 points off those errors. At one point midway through the second half, after Morgan misfired an entry pass to Bryant in the post, Crean looked at Morgan with incredulity, as if he couldn’t understand how the mistakes and poor play could continue to pile in a critical game.
“Our maturity has got to raise,” Crean said, “and I’m in here as far as I need to get to work and continue to figure out more ways that this team can compete on the defensive end and find easier ways to get them baskets.”