Rutgers is going dancing, and Indiana is going to church
The first play-in game of this year’s NCAA tournament was not in Dayton, but Bloomington.
For the winner of Wednesday night’s Rutgers-Indiana game, an NCAA tournament berth would be a near certainty. And for the loser, more work lay ahead on a schedule that only guarantees 2 more opportunities to do that work.
Almost all evening, it looked like the Hoosiers would be the team breathing comfortably come Selection Sunday.
Instead, it will be a nervy week-and-a-half in Indiana. Rutgers closed the game on a 21-11 run over the final 9 minutes, escaping town with a 66-63 win when Ron Harper Jr. drilled a 3 with 2.1 seconds left.
All Rutgers needs to do now is avoid kicking over the pot in its home finale against a sliding Penn State team. Win there and the Scarlet Knights will be 18-12 overall with a 12-8 mark in the Big Ten. At that point, it may not matter what happens when the Big Ten tourney tips off in Indianapolis 2 weeks from now.
The Hoosiers, on the other hand, are trickling towards their fifth consecutive missed NCAA tournament.
Yes, that should come with an asterisk. Indiana was obviously NCAA-bound in 2020 before the pandemic wiped out a whole lot more than a basketball tournament. But if it comes to pass, Indiana basketball will be in its longest gap between tournament appearances since 1967-73.
So while Rutgers is preparing to go dancing, it may be time for Indiana to start praying. Because the task ahead for the Hoosiers is unenviable — even if they don’t have to leave their home state.
Why another win matters
Should Indiana lose at Purdue in its season finale while Rutgers beats Penn State, both teams will head to the Big Ten tournament with 18-12 records.
But those records are not created equal.
Rutgers is now 6-5 against Quad 1 opponents and 9-9 against opponents in the top 2 Quads of the NCAA NET rankings. Indiana is 3-6 against Quad 1 and 6-10 against the top 2 Quads overall.
The Scarlet Knights do have 3 rough non-conference losses, which the Hoosiers were able to avoid. But the selection committee will surely place less weight on that than the strength of Rutgers’ best wins — of which it has twice as many as Indiana does.
The Hoosiers could make that academic with a win over the Boilermakers, of course, but that’s a taller order than 7-foot-4 Purdue center Zach Edey. Indiana hasn’t won at Mackey Arena since 2013. The Hoosiers were ranked third in the country when they won that game, which at the time was their first win at Purdue since 2006.
In order to assure itself of its first tournament berth since 2016, all IU has to do is win at Mackey for the third time in 16 years.
So realistically speaking, it’s going to take a win at Gainbridge Fieldhouse for Indiana to reach the Big Dance.
Indiana’s temple of doom
Barring a win at Purdue, IU is locked in to the No. 9 seed and an 11:30 a.m. tip on Thursday morning of the Big Ten tourney. Barring some strangeness, the Hoosiers will either draw Michigan or Michigan State in that game.
Neither is a particularly good matchup for Mike Woodson’s team, which is yet another reason beating Rutgers would have been massive.
Other than the loss at Northwestern where Woodson suspended 5 players, Indiana’s 2 worst performances this season were against the Wolverines and Spartans.
Michigan shot 57% from the field against the Hoosiers — 8 percentage points higher than any other opponent this season.
Against the Spartans, it was the opposite issue. Indiana couldn’t make a bucket if there was a ladder to the rim. The Hoosiers — notably the Big Ten’s second-worst shooting team — were a season-low 33.9% from the field at Michigan State.
So it’s a pick your poison scenario. The team you can’t stop, or the team you can’t score against.
The good news — perhaps the only good news — is that Indiana is almost certainly in if it can survive its first-round matchup. Next up would be top-seeded Wisconsin, which is actually a team the Hoosiers match with quite favorably.
Beating the Badgers would be icing on the cake, but a loss to a potential 1- or 2-seed in the NCAA tournament wouldn’t hurt the Hoosiers a bit.
Unfortunately, getting that far is much more than half the battle.
Rutgers regrets will be many
If Indiana plays another game at Assembly Hall this season — and given the road ahead, that first-round NIT game looks more likely than not — the Hoosiers have nobody to blame but themselves.
We’ve grown to expect Indiana’s offense to vanish for long stretches in every game, and that was again the case on Wednesday night. But this time the Hoosiers didn’t play good enough defense to compensate.
Rutgers had 41 points in the second half, scoring on 13 of its final 19 possessions.
Unfortunately, that is now a trend. Minnesota scored 46 in the second half against IU on Sunday. Ohio State had 17 overtime points against the Hoosiers on Feb. 21.
Whether it is the various injuries or just the toll of the season wearing on players’ legs, Indiana is not playing defense at the same level it did earlier this year.
And if it doesn’t have defense as a constant, Indiana’s season comes down to a wing and a prayer.