LAHAINA, Hawaii – A week-long trip to Maui was everything but a vacation for IU. On the heels of a dominant victory over Creighton, the Hoosiers arrived in the United States' 50th state on Friday undefeated and ranked in the top-15 nationally in both major college basketball polls.
After falling to UNLV (5-1) on Wednesday, 72-69, IU (4-2) will leave the Maui Invitational with a pair of losses and a sixth-place tournament finish. When IU last played in the Maui Invitational in 2008 – IU Coach Tom Crean's first season in Bloomington – the Hoosiers finished seventh with an identical record in the tournament.
The one bright spot was a 10-point victory against St. John's on Tuesday, sandwiched between the two losses.
November losses happen in college basketball. Before Wednesday, nine other ranked teams had suffered losses this season, including five who were ranked in the top-10 at the time of the matchup. With IU’s loss on Wednesday, the Big Ten has dropped 18 games across its 14 member institutions.
But IU lost twice in a three-day span and has little to show for it in regards to its strength of schedule.
Rather than facing No. 19 Vanderbilt and No. 5 Kansas in a potential path to the Maui Invitational championship, the Hoosiers lost against seemingly inferior competition. Wake Forest was picked to finish 11th in the ACC preseason poll and UNLV was fourth in the Mountain West’s preseason poll.
UNLV Coach Dave Rice said teams go to the Maui Invitational for two reasons. They go because it's a prestigious tournament with star-studded fields, and to look in the mirror to find out who they truly are, he said.
"You come here as a group, as a team, trying to find out your identity, trying to see who in your program has toughness, who can bounce back," Rice said.
“This is a great tournament to learn about that in,” Crean said. “No question disappointed with a loss today, but we've got to turn this into some positives. It's all going to come down to how people view where their improvement level is.”
The Hoosiers have work to do on both ends of the floor. Crean said his team can improve in every aspect of the game, citing IU’s six-game resume through late November.
He plans on IU’s coaching staff putting the team’s four wins and two losses together on film to get a feel for possible trends.
On offense, improvement starts with taking care of the ball, playing through the paint and converting at the free throw line. IU has one of the most efficient offenses in the country – only Duke and Miami average more points per possession – but turnovers and free throw woes have handcuffed the team’s scoring potential.
The Hoosiers’ offensive Achilles' heels reared their ugly heads on Wednesday against UNLV.
The Rebels are leeches defensively, turning opponents over on 22.9 percent of their offensive possessions entering Wednesday's game. With an average height of 6-foot-7, they're long and athletic, and they turn turnovers into easy buckets in transition on the other end.
Rice’s backcourt of sophomore Patrick McCaw, senior Ike Nwamu and senior Jerome Seagers combined for 48 points on 17-of-35 shooting, including seven 3-pointers. McCaw led UNLV’s defensive charge with five steals.
UNLV's defensive pressure was too much for IU to handle from the start. IU coughed the ball up 10 times in the first 11 minutes.
“We got ourselves in a hole at the beginning with our turnovers, and you're not going to beat any type of team, let alone one as talented as UNLV, when you're giving them 22 points,” Crean said. “It's unacceptable with the guys that have the ball in their hands for us to be giving the ball that way, and we've got to get that fixed.”
Junior forward Troy Williams was briefly benched after turning the ball over three times before halftime. Each of the three Hoosiers on the Wooden Award Preseason Watch List – senior guard Yogi Ferrell, sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. and Williams – had four apiece in the game. As a team, the Hoosiers had 21 turnovers.
UNLV’s largest lead of the game – 15 points – followed a shot clock violation against freshman forward Juwan Morgan.
IU cut the deficit to seven at halftime as the Rebels missed four consecutive 3-point attempts.
The Hoosiers went on an 8-2 run to tie the game at 46 – one of two times the game was tied – with 15:03 left in the game.
Senior guard Nick Zeisloft was IU’s greatest offensive weapon. He scored a team-high 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from behind the arc. Blackmon Jr. chipped in 13 points, but no other Hoosier reached double figures.
After the teams were knotted up in the second half, UNLV distanced itself from IU with a 9-2 run, capped off by a 3-pointer from Nwamu.
IU never pulled within fewer than two points for the rest of the game.
After Nwamu missed a pair of free throws with 7.1 seconds left, Ferrell took control of the ball and was fouled as he crossed halfcourt.
He took the ball out of bounds but was whistled for a five-second violation. UNLV proceeded to throw the ball out of bounds on its own sidelines play, giving the ball back to the Hoosiers with 3.9 seconds left.
Forward Collin Hartman took the ball out of bounds. Blackmon Jr. ran from left to right across the court, followed by Zeisloft, who received a pass from Hartman.
Zeisloft had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds but UNLV do-it-all forward Ben Carter got his hand on the shot, ruining any chance the ball had of getting to the rim.
“I wish I might have shot faked or something better, but that play's over,” Zeisloft said. “There are other plays and another game that we have to worry about to get better.”
It was the Hoosiers’ second loss in three days.
When IU flies home from Maui on Thanksgiving, Crean will have his eyes on the work that lies ahead rather than the holidays, as a road game at No. 6 Duke looms on the horizon.
“I know everybody will be looking forward to the time here and certainly we have Thanksgiving,” Crean said. “But I'll be looking forward to our next practice.”