CHICAGO — During the halftime show at the United Center on Saturday afternoon, 64-year-old acrobat Gary Borstelmann — stage name the Amazing Sladek, America’s oldest daredevil — stood roughly 25 feet above center court, five wooden chairs and a table stacked on top of each other beneath him. As Finnish DJ Darude’s 1999 cult EDM hit “Sandstorm” blared throughout the massive arena, Sladek took a sixth chair, perched it upside down on the edge of the chair beneath it and lifted himself into a perfect handstand.
Countless hours of practice, careful planning and no doubt intense core exercise led to this moment. Under the smothering expectations of fans and the bright lights of a 23,500-seat arena, the silver-haired performer would not let all he had built collapse beneath him.
You don’t suppose Sladek is accepting speaking engagements for college basketball teams, do you?
No. 3-seeded Indiana fell to No. 10 Penn State 77-73 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals Saturday afternoon, ending a Big Ten season that began with the Hoosiers as the preseason title favorite. Whether you’re an Indiana fan or not, I’m sure we can all agree the Hoosiers’ 2022-23 campaign has been marred by injuries and a brutal schedule. It isn’t totally fair to call the season thus far a disappointment.
That said, I don’t think fans would call the feeling in their stomachs one of joy and fulfillment.
After Indiana jetted to a 12-6 lead, Penn State scored two buckets for every one of Indiana’s to take a commanding 34-26 halftime lead. Despite a remarkable 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists from star senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and double-digit scoring efforts by multiple Hoosiers, Indiana never led after 12:41 remained in the first half.
If I were a 48-year-old father of two, here’s where I would say something like, “Man, it just wasn’t Indiana’s day.”
To be fair, it really just wasn’t Indiana’s day.
The Hoosiers didn’t shoot terribly — 47% from the field, substantially better than the Nittany Lions’ underwhelming 40% — but they missed plenty of seemingly easy floaters, lay-ins and turnaround jumpers in the post. The rim was like a dog refusing to take the medicine Indiana desperately tried to coax it into eating.
The Hoosiers also made just two 3-pointers, which wouldn’t be a huge deal if they didn’t surrender eight to the Nittany Lions.
It occasionally feels like Indiana wants to play games entirely within the paint, but Penn State gladly stretched the floor from wing to wing. With Jackson-Davis and fellow rim protector graduate forward Race Thompson pulled out of their comfort zone, the Nittany Lions created open looks with relative ease. Those looks often turned into backbreaking buckets at the worst times, extinguishing Indiana’s many comeback attempts.
The final two minutes and five seconds of the contest saw the Hoosiers storm from down 72-59 to within a single point, but it wasn’t enough. Like many times throughout the season, Indiana was really good. Just not good enough.
The crustier Hoosier fans might tell you Indiana’s players simply didn’t want it enough. That is almost certainly false. It’s nonsense. Balderdash, I tell you.
From all I can gather, Jackson-Davis and his teammates wanted nothing more than to return to Bloomington with a Big Ten title. But that would have meant putting together a better 40 minutes of basketball than each of their tournament opponents, and that simply didn’t happen.
It’s safe to say Indiana is not the best team in the Big Ten, at least not by any meaningful metric. There are plenty of reasons beyond the Hoosiers’ control that prevented them from living up to their preseason hype, but I don’t think any of them are much of a consolation to fans.
Alright, now take a breather. Barring a first-round exit in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the 2022-23 season is still the best Indiana has had in years. I’m not here to extinguish the light of hope in anyone’s soul. That’s what everything else in life is for.
If you’re a disheartened Hoosier who made the ill-fated trip to the Windy City, let me remind you where you are right now. Yes, the uppermost crust of the Big Ten can be cruel. But you may still find some joy in the much lower, much more buttery crust at the bottom of dishes far deeper than any conference tournament run.
It’s OK to be sad or hurt. But for you, a fan, it’s ultimately just basketball. Buckle up for March Madness, get ready to be hurt again and understand the losses don’t sting nearly as much when you’ve already lost yourself in the sauce. The tangy, luxuriant, piquant tomato sauce.
Now, who’s hungry? For March basketball, for pizza, for pain — whatever your broken heart and rumbly tummy can handle.
Follow reporters Evan Gerike (@EvanGerike) and Emma Pawlitz (@emmapawlitz), columnist Bradley Hohulin (@BradleyHohulin) and photographer Alex Paul (.@alexpaulphoto) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season.