Four months of college basketball later, and March has arrived.
Indiana men’s basketball will play its first game of the final full month of the 2021-22 season against Rutgers at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Emotions will be running high for certain players in the team’s home finale, but also for the entire team as there is so much still on the line.
With conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament set for the following weeks, every game going forward has significance for teams still uncertain of where they belong in the postseason conversation — if at all.
For Indiana, though, this stretch of make-or-break games dates back to Feb. 21, when the team plummeted to a five-game losing streak with an overtime loss to then-No. 22 Ohio State. The Hoosiers built a respectable resume for the NCAA Tournament prior to their skid, posting a 7-4 conference record and wins over two top-25 teams, including one of the season’s biggest upsets against then-No. 4 Purdue.
Since the Ohio State loss, Indiana has put itself back in contention for a bid as a low seed in the NCAA Tournament. There hasn’t been any room for error since other Big Ten opponents are also fighting their way out of the bubble. Wins in the first two of Indiana’s last four regular season games against inferior competition — Maryland and Minnesota — have eased some of that pressure.
Still, the Hoosiers are not guaranteed anything. They are ninth in the Big Ten standings with a 9-9 record. The Big Ten Tournament from March 9-13 can also prove crucial toward grabbing one of the final seeds, but the opportunities before then can’t be overlooked.
Here are a few things to keep track of when the Hoosiers play their final game in Bloomington this season:
Does Indiana’s fate lie in Wednesday’s result?
Well, it’s not that simple.
While a win on Wednesday would give Indiana a big boost, it can’t solely rely on that and lose its focus in the rematch with now-No. 8 Purdue on Sunday. One win from the last two regular season games may end up being enough for the Hoosiers to dance in March, but failing to advance at all in the Big Ten Tournament wouldn’t be a good look.
Rutgers is 10-8 in Big Ten play, meaning that a win on Wednesday can put Indiana on level terms in the standings and give it a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Scarlet Knights. This is only one of several ways the Hoosiers can make the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s decision of whether or not to include them easier, but undoubtedly one of most effective.
A loss, though, would be detrimental to Indiana’s chances. The team isn’t expected to win against Purdue, and two losses to end the season would push Indiana at an unfavorable 9-11 conference record. Pair that with an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament, and the Hoosiers are likely to go a sixth-straight year without an NCAA Tournament appearance than not.
Head coach Mike Woodson said the Hoosiers are focused on the task at hand and can’t dwell on what could’ve been during the previous losing streak, but said he’s made sure the players learn from the team’s shortcomings.
“You could probably say it started here (for me), because (former head coach Bob) Knight never let you forget the past,” Woodson said Tuesday at media availability. “I don’t either when it comes to games. I’m not ever going to let them forget (losses). But I can’t live in the past. Trying to push these guys to do the right things on and off the court (is) what it’s about right now.”
Uncertainty surrounding senior night festivities
Wednesday’s home finale means cause for celebration. While Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall will likely be packed with fans eager to celebrate the veteran Hoosier players, it’s still unknown who will make their final appearances on Branch McCracken Court.
Each of the upperclassmen on Indiana’s roster has at least one year of eligibility left, granted by the NCAA after COVID-19 cut the 2019-20 season short. Among the key players that could choose to move on are junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, senior forward Race Thompson and senior guard Rob Phinisee.
“I’m not doing senior night, still leaving that last COVID year on the table,” Phinisee said about his plans. “I’m not focused on that right now. You never know what’s gonna come, so you just have to react and talk to your family and friends about it.”
This is Thompson’s fifth season as a Hoosier, while Jackson-Davis planned to enter the NBA Draft last summer before Woodson took over as head coach and convinced him to stay in Bloomington for another season. Thompson and senior guard Parker Stewart are the only two players scheduled to address the crowd Wednesday night.
“It’s chaotic right now in terms of how it’s going to play out,” Woodson said. “All I can do is wait until the season’s over and see where we’re at. I’m all for whatever they want to do. If there’s guys that are going to take that walk, all I can do is wish them well.”