CHICAGO — Ah, college basketball. The poise. The elegance. The understated beauty of human bodies in peak physical condition working together in near-perfect synchronicity.
There is simply no room for any of that in the Big Ten Tournament.
While No. 3-seeded Indiana men’s basketball’s 70-60 victory against No. 6 Maryland on Friday night was far from pretty, it was exactly what the Hoosiers needed to show they can make a deep postseason run. Senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino combined for 43 points, turning a tightly contested battle into a convincing win.
While the Hoosiers scored on their first five possessions to go up 11-5, the Terrapins shot 6-of-13 from the 3-point line to lead 34-32 at halftime. Indiana, meanwhile, attempted only three 3-pointers in the opening frame.
To be clear, I don’t think Indiana would solve all its problems if it simply jacked up more 3-pointers. I don’t really understand the contingent of Indiana fans who act like the Hoosiers shooting more 3-pointers would end world hunger and peacefully resolve multiple geopolitical crises overseas.
Still, with junior guard Trey Galloway and graduate forward Miler Kopp shooting a combined 46% from beyond the arc prior to Friday night, Indiana probably would have benefited from a few more long-range attempts early.
That said, the Hoosiers never let the game get out of hand. We’ve watched Indiana suffer brutal losses because it didn’t defend the perimeter, so it was almost surprising to see the Hoosiers hanging on to a 2-point halftime deficit after a five-minute scoring drought and only one made free throw.
Maybe it was the late tipoff, the neutral court or the cumulative mental erosion of a 32-game season, but the United Center was rife with downright goofy vibes Friday night.
After the first half buzzer, I watched stadium employees bring an ironing board, a wheelbarrow, a medical crutch, two ladders and all manner of wheeled apparatus onto the court and it barely phased me. Why yes, I thought to myself — it is perfectly normal that the halftime performer is riding a purple Razor scooter while balancing a crutch on his nose. And yeah, obviously he is now balancing the scooter by its wheel in his mouth.
It's the postseason. It’s wacky. Nothing goes exactly how you expect, and sometimes you’re left balancing oblong objects and hoping for the best.
In the second half, the Hoosiers regained their footing defensively. They locked down the Terrapins’ shooters, who posted an abysmal 25% from the floor with only three made 3-pointers.
Offensively, Indiana started penetrating the paint and getting to the free-throw line regularly, adding 11 points from the charity stripe. Maryland’s lead rapidly dwindled as Jackson-Davis bullied defenders in the low post, stoking anticipation in the predominantly Indiana crowd.
With 9:27 remaining in the game and Indiana fans ready to erupt, sophomore guard Tamar Bates drained a 3-pointer to cap off a 15-0 scoring run and put the Hoosiers up 54-43. Like Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s cow in the summer of 1871, it felt like Bates was about to set the city of Chicago on fire.
While the Terrapins clawed back within 6 points of the Hoosiers, they never regained the confidence they showed in the first half. Indiana fell down repeatedly, but got back up every time and punched its ticket to the Big Ten semifinals.
With a few rare exceptions, there are no easy outs in the postseason. Teams fight tooth and nail for NCAA Tournament bids or better seeds. Any lapse in effort by a player or lapse in judgment by a coach can prove fatal.
Tight defense, relentless effort and decent shooting can take a reasonably talented team far in the postseason. Throw in some good coaching and you have a serious contender.
Of course, we might watch No. 10 Penn State demolish Indiana tomorrow to continue its own charmed tournament run. The only logical precept of March basketball is that there are none.
I know being a fan of a Big Ten school during the tournament can be all kinds of stressful, confusing or even painful. If you can’t handle the lows, there are plenty of much easier, more straightforward hobbies you can try instead.
Have you ever considered balancing an ironing board on your teeth?