There is simply no explanation for what happened to Indiana in Lincoln, Nebraska last night. You can go back and study every minute of every game for the last two years, and you won't find an answer to Tom Crean's biggest question, why can't my team finish games?
Last night, the Indiana Hoosiers lost a heartbreaking game to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, giving away an 11-point lead with just over six minutes to play.
For the first 34 minutes of the game, Indiana looked like a top-five offensive team. They got the ball inside, made sharp cuts to the basket, reversed the ball, and scored points by consistently making the extra pass. And then, they realized they had a game to close out.
The rest of the game consisted of excessive dribbling, forced shots, turnovers, and five individuals thinking they could do it alone. And that was just on offense.
The defense wasn't good for most of the game, but it was especially bad in crunch time. Indiana continued to get beat off the dribble and failed to get stops when it mattered most. It's not that they were getting beat by a more athletic team that was making plays, it's simply their inability to execute the basic fundamental defensive principles they've been taught since grade school.
Christian Watford failed on each of Nebraska's last two possessions to fight and get over the top of screens, hanging the switch-man Will Sheehey out to dry on the ball-handler both times.
In a situation where a defensive rebound would have won the game for the Hoosiers, Cody Zeller boxed out two Nebraska players, while Victor Oladipo got caught staring at the shot and was late getting to the ball. Nebraska's Dylan Talley eventually got the rebound and made the put-back to bring the Huskers within one.
Jordan Hulls missed the front end of a big free throw in the last minute of the game, Victor Oladipo threw the ball away, and even Cody Zeller had an uncharacteristic turnover down the stretch.
Murphy's law is never more prevalent than in the last eight minutes of an Indiana basketball game, and it's not a coincidence.
Even in the games they've won this season, save the NC State and Ohio State games, the Hoosiers have struggled to execute down the stretch.
In their biggest win of the season against Kentucky, they couldn't get anything going offensively in the last eight minutes. If it weren't for Christian Watford, who scored every single Indiana point in the last seven minutes, they don't win that game.
Two weeks ago in Happy Valley, the Hoosiers were in complete control of the entire game against Penn State, that is until they nearly squandered an 11-point lead in the last five minutes. They wound up winning the game by six, but it was a two point game with 30 seconds to play due to costly turnovers down the stretch.
And then there was the Michigan State game, when the Hoosiers went on a 25-2 run to take a nine point lead with ten minutes to play. That game resulted in a 15-point loss.
The most perplexing thing about Indiana's late game woes is that they appeared to conquer them on the road at North Carolina State. After going down by seven late in that game, the Hoosiers played tough defense and executed offensively, cruising to an 86-75 win.
Winning can cause you to look past a lot of flaws, and the Hoosiers' late-game execution is at the top of that list. There is no magic formula, this team simply has to figure out what they're doing in the first 32 minutes and carry it over to the final minutes of the game.
It's clear that Indiana's incredible start created unrealistic expectations that they were an elite team. They aren't.
But they're also not as bad of a team as they've shown since the start of the Big-Ten season. What everyone wants to know is where do they fall on the spectrum between those two extremes? The next 12 games will tell the tale.
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