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Heading into NCAA Tournament, Indiana men’s basketball has to find consistency

CHICAGO — No word may sum up this IU men’s basketball season better than ‘inconsistent.’

Unlike last year, Indiana won’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday. IU is projected to earn a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to Bracket Matrix. The Hoosiers will play in March Madness for the second consecutive season, for the first time in seven years.

In that sense, IU’s had a good season.

But after entering the season as Big Ten favorites, and after repeated references to adding another banner at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, simply making the tournament can’t be the barometer of a successful 2022-23 for Indiana men’s basketball. This team came in with real aspirations of winning a conference title and reaching a Final Four.

After Saturday’s 77-73 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, the Hoosiers can rule out one of those things. And their up-and-down performance in that game symbolized, perhaps, their biggest flaw that could make the other unattainable.

“If we could get a 40-minute ballgame each and every time you step out, it makes life a lot easier for you as a coach and as players playing,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “I thought we stepped on the floor with great intentions early, and then we had some miscues. We did a better job the second half, but it was an uphill climb once we dug a hole early. I like the way we fought back, but you don’t get a whole lot for second place.”

Indiana (22-11) did show fight on Saturday to get the final score that close, and nearly completed an astonishing comeback. Penn State (22-12) led by 15 points with two minutes left, and IU made it a one-point game with 33 seconds to go. The Hoosiers deserve credit for that.

And, in fairness, this wasn’t a letdown against an easy opponent. Penn State entered Chicago on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and after doing more than enough to secure a bid, the Nittany Lions are a legitimate Sweet 16 threat.

But this was far from the first time Indiana’s dug itself too deep a hole to climb out of. And this wasn’t its first roller-coaster performance, either. Consistency has been elusive for these Hoosiers, both from game to game and within 40 minutes.

Indiana started strong on Saturday, holding a 12-6 lead at the first media timeout. But the Nittany Lions can strike quickly, and when IU went cold, they did just that.

It’s not the cold stretch that’s the issue — players are human. No team shoots 100 percent from the field. But settling for bad shots early in the shot clock, and missing those looks — that’s a problem. That’s what allowed Penn State to build its lead.

The Hoosiers, though, didn’t let the game get away early in the second half, and by midway through the period, they tied it up.

But that, too, didn’t last. Penn State stormed back on a quick 7-0 run, regaining control of the game and forcing an IU timeout.

Any time the Hoosiers showed life, they couldn’t back it up.

“You can do all kinds of things (as a staff). You can be positive. You can be negative. But at the end of the day, they still have to figure it out too once they’re out there on the floor,” Woodson said. “There’s no magical pill that you can give these guys when they’re struggling. I wouldn’t call our team really struggling. I thought we competed, but we just didn’t compete for 40 minutes.”

And that’s the kicker: Indiana has competed for a full 40 minutes only a handful of times all season.

Aside from early season non-conference games against soft opponents, Indiana’s really only strung together one three-game stretch with consistently quality play. That was the mid-January winning streak against Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan State that followed IU’s low point of the year, the three-game losing streak to begin January.

IU has struggled to validate so many of its biggest wins and biggest moments of the season. A gritty win at Michigan, followed up with a dismal first half at Northwestern; a remarkable performance at Purdue, preceding a blowout loss to Iowa; a statement win (at the time) over North Carolina, and then a whimper against Rutgers.

A commanding second half in the Big Ten Tournament against Maryland, followed by a disappointment against Penn State.

These Hoosiers have had high highs and low lows. Indiana, at its best, looks like a team capable of achieving those lofty preseason goals. But at its worst — which has happened too many times — IU looks like an NIT team.

To Miller Kopp, Indiana has to dictate the game to reach its potential.

“I think just playing the type of basketball we want to play on both sides of the ball. For us, it comes down to sticking to our principles and being almost as perfect as we can in those,” Kopp said. “For us, it’s about sharing the ball on offense, getting Trayce the ball as much as we can, get stops, rebound the ball, and then play in transition. That’s really where we’re at our best.”

Individually, Trayce Jackson-Davis has been IU’s lone constant. Even Jalen Hood-Schifino, who has dazzled and displayed his burgeoning NBA potential in many games, has been inconsistent.

IU players like Malik Reneau, Tamar Bates, and Jordan Geronimo have had so many outings that felt like potential springboards for the rest of the season. And so many times, that progress wasn’t sustained.

Kopp’s 3-point shooting is a big weapon for IU when he wields it, but he’s often more hesitant to pull the trigger than he should be and will pass up open looks or dribble out of it. That was the case against Penn State.

“You can’t be afraid to shoot the ball,” Jackson-Davis said. “We’ve got a great team. We’ve got great shooters, and that’s what really spaces the floor for us. So when we’re not doing that, they can just pack it in.”

It’s not too late for Indiana to develop the consistency it takes to win a championship. March Madness has provided storylines far more improbable than that. This tournament is not about which team is the best — it’s about which team is the hottest.

Indiana is more capable of getting hot and making a run in the NCAA Tournament. This squad, at its best, has enough high-level talent to compete with a large majority of the field.

But IU’s challenge is not only finding its best basketball, but sustaining it across several weekends. Because there’s no more margin for error.

The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”