When it comes to the hierarchy of Big Ten men’s basketball, rarely have there been years like this, when traditional powers are on the NCAA tournament bubble.
In fact, the last time Indiana and Michigan both finished below Minnesota in the conference standings was in 2010. And that’s only happened two other times in the past 20 years, 1997 and 2005.
But it’s a position the Gophers (18-7, 6-6 Big Ten) find themselves in this week while playing host to the Hoosiers (15-11, 5-8) on Wednesday and Wolverines (16-9, 6-6) on Sunday.
Indiana, the defending Big Ten champion, is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament and finishing with its first losing conference season since 2013-14.
“It’s really weird to see traditionally good teams just dropping games like that,” Gophers sophomore forward Jordan Murphy said. “They’re all still good teams. That’s the strangest thing. … All the middle teams still have all-conference players. It’s really amazing to me how good they are, yet the middle teams are fighting for that position to be in the NCAA tournament.”
Entering Wednesday, the Gophers were projected as a No. 8 seed by ESPN.com and No. 7 seed by CBSSports.com. Neither NCAA tournament bracket projection had the Hoosiers making the field of 68. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Michigan State as a No. 10 seed, Michigan as a No. 11 seed and Indiana as one of his “first four teams out,” as of Monday.
How far has Indiana fallen? Hoosiers coach Tom Crean’s club was considered by some to be a Final Four contender this year, especially after it beat Kansas and North Carolina in nonconference play.
Lunardi had the Hoosiers as high as a No. 2 projected NCAA tournament seed, and they were ranked as the No. 3 team in the nation in Week 3, behind only Kentucky and Villanova.
The first big blow for the Gophers’ Wednesday opponent was losing 6-8 sophomore and potential NBA lottery pick O.G. Anunoby to a season-ending knee injury following the Jan. 18 victory against Penn State. Anunoby averaged 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. Indiana has been 2-5 since, and more injuries added to its derailment.
Leading scorer James Blackmon Jr., who averages 16.8 points, missed three consecutive games because of a leg injury. When Blackmon returned, he scored only 17 points combined on 5-for-21 shooting in losses to Purdue and Michigan.
A day after Indiana’s 75-63 loss Sunday at home to Michigan, Crean blasted some juniors with comments on the radio about them not giving talented sophomore center Thomas Bryant enough help in leading the team. He didn’t use names, but Crean was pretty clearly singling out players. Guards Blackmon and Robert Johnson are junior starters.
“They really have no ability right now to see past themselves when it comes to what it takes for us to be successful,” Crean said.
He added: “I’ve never coached a team with this lack of maturity when it comes to being able to respond and rebound when things aren’t going well for them personally. And that includes my teams that I had that won six and 10 games. So I’ve got to do a much better job.”
Indiana has lost three in a row and five of the past six. Minnesota dropped five consecutive before going on a three-game winning streak. During the slide, Gophers coach Richard Pitino criticized his players for “hijacking the team” by making mistakes in close losses.
“It was a lot different,” Pitino said, comparing his comments with Crean’s. “I can’t speak for him. My point was if it comes down to a made free throw or an execution of a play, your players have got to take some ownership. And I think [coaches are] very scared to do that, because everybody gets outraged when a coach says something about a player for whatever reason.”
Pitino doesn’t think Crean was throwing his players under the bus. He saw a coach trying to get a talented squad to be mentally tougher. He can relate to that, but the Gophers hope Indiana doesn’t decide to wake up against them Wednesday.
“There’s that age-old question about if you rather play a team after they lose or win,” he said. “I don’t know the answer. … I know he’ll have them ready.”