No room for error in season’s final week

A wild, winding campaign has come down to this: the final week and a pair of games that will determine Indiana’s course from here.

For Big Ten teams, the postseason doesn’t begin for another week, when the conference converges on the United Center in Chicago for its annual league-wide tournament.

For Indiana, the postseason may as well start now.

The next two contests amount to a series of play-in games for the Hoosiers, who need wins against Illinois and Rutgers — followed by at least one more victory next week in Chicago — to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes, however slim, alive.

IU coach Archie Miller doesn’t want to make this week feel any bigger than the last, when Indiana toppled a pair of ranked teams, then-No. 19 Wisconsin and then-No. 6 Michigan State, to put itself back in the postseason conversation. In a sense, he’s correct. The Hoosiers can’t waver from their approach now.

But make no mistake, the stakes are clear. Win, and the postseason appears that much closer. Lose, and IU’s NCAA Tournament hopes are dashed.

The quest starts Thursday against the Illini.

“I think everybody would like to look back and say, ‘Boy, if we had gotten a couple here or there, we’d be in a much more comfortable situation in terms of what everyone wants for the postseason,” Miller said. “But here’s the thing: we have two games this week. They’re both as important as the Michigan State game was. It impacts, obviously, the totality of your seed in the Big Ten Tournament and when you play, who you play, how you play, but it also puts us in the mix right now of creeping back into the NCAA Tournament picture where, I don’t know how many it’s going to take. But I do know we still control what we can control right now.”

That said, there’s no room for error.

Indiana is on its way back to the bubble, but it’s not yet close to being on the right side of it. The latest bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi places IU in the Next Four Out category. At BracketMatrix.com, which weighs tournament projections from across the country, the Hoosiers are slotted inside the First Four Out category.

Clearly, there’s still work to be done.

It starts Thursday at Illinois, which found traction last month with four consecutive conference victories, including one against the Spartans. The Illini have been playing some of their best basketball in their two seasons under coach Brad Underwood, getting steadier and improved play from underclassmen Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier.

They’re frustrating opponents with their pace and pressure, making up for deficiencies in talent and experience with an in-your-face style that makes them a unique challenge, even inside the tackle-basketball landscape of the Big Ten.

Then, there’s Rutgers, which sent Indiana to a seventh-straight loss on Jan. 30. The Scarlet Knights are no longer getting outclassed in the conference. In fact, they’re winning — claiming a pair of victories last week against Minnesota and Iowa to assert their role as spoilers inside the season’s final days.

“Everyone understands that there’s a lot to play for for a lot of teams,” Miller said. “We’ve had a lot to play for for a long time now, and being able to get up off the mat last week and get two big wins was great to see, that we’re still right there in terms of our disposition and what we’re playing for and the focus of our group. It won’t be any different this week.

“You can’t make it any bigger than it was last week. Each game feels bigger because the season continues to get longer, and everyone is striving for something right now at this time of year. In the case of our league, it doesn’t matter if it’s Team 1 or Team 14. Everyone is good.”

Should Indiana win out this week, it would arrange a fascinating set of opportunities inside the Big Ten Tournament next week.

The Hoosiers are tied with Illinois for the widest range of seeding scenarios for next week’s games in Chicago. IU, which opened this week as the No. 11 seed, could jump as high as the No. 8 seed and fall as low as the No. 13 seed depending on this week’s results.

Indiana can clinch a single-bye with wins over Illinois and Rutgers, or with a win over Illinois combined with a Penn State victory over the Illini on Sunday.

“We have a lot to play for right now,” Miller said. “Our guys understand that. I’m not looking at it as anything to put pressure on anybody or whatnot. We’ve been under a lot of heat over the last 30 to 35 days. It sort of is what it is. Every game’s been difficult on us, but we’re playing hard right now. We’re playing in a way that can give us a chance.”