WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – What a difference a year makes.
Back on Mar. 6, 2016, Indiana was on the top of the Big Ten.
It was the last game of the regular season, and the Hoosiers had already clinched the Big Ten title. For good measure, the No. 12 ranked Hoosiers stomped No. 14 Maryland, 80-62, to finish the conference season 15-3.
Once the final buzzer sounded, the team posed for pictures with the Big Ten Championship trophy before the five seniors gave their traditional speeches. Then, each Hoosier cut down a piece of the nets, one by one, until the iron lied naked 10-feet above Branch McCracken Court.
It was a picture perfect ending to a season that could have gone off the rails after early losses to Wake Forest, UNLV and Duke. In the end, the 2015-16 Indiana Hoosiers ended the season with the most conference wins of any team in the Tom Crean era. Not even the squads with Oladipo and Zeller won 15 league games.
“Everyone on this team has hit rock bottom [at some point],” then-junior Troy Williams told the media after the game, a strand of the net attached to his hat. “To come up now and see how far it brought us is just an amazing feeling.”
It’s less than one year later, and things couldn’t be more different.
On Tuesday night in West Lafayette, the 2016-17 Hoosiers’ (16-14, 6-11) downward descent continued, this time at the hands of rival Purdue (24-6, 13-5). The Boilermakers trounced Indiana, 86-75, to claim a share of the Big Ten title and clinch the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
When the final horn sounded, the Purdue celebration began. Loud bangs of firecrackers preceded the dropping of mass amounts of black and gold confetti from the ceiling.
The Big Ten trophy was escorted onto the court as the players rejoiced and cheerleaders did snow angels in the fallen confetti.
It had been 25 months since the last time these two rivals met at Mackey Arena. For the Boilermakers, it was worth the wait.
“To be able to knock off your rival on your home court for a Big Ten Championship is unbelievable,” Purdue’s Vince Edwards told reporters after the game, a piece of freshly cut net tied to his cap and the trophy gripped tightly in his arms.
In nearly identical fashion as Indiana had done at Assembly Hall almost one year ago, the Boilermakers posed with the Big Ten trophy, celebrated their seniors, and one by one, cut down the nets until the rims were bare.
At the same time Purdue celebrated, Tom Crean spoke to reporters in the press room, the sound of Purdue’s jubilation faintly audible in the background.
“We’re a different team this year than what we were a year ago,” Crean said as part of an answer to a question about foul trouble in the post.
That fact couldn’t be more clear. The same issues that have haunted Indiana all season – subpar defense, turnovers, an inability to stay out of foul trouble, and a lack communication – were present in Tuesday’s loss.
“We’ve just gotta do a better job of being fundamentally sound,” Josh Newkirk said after the team’s sixth loss in seven games. “Just pivoting, passing, making the right plays and just reading the defense.”
During availability Monday, Crean called many of these issues “correctable.” But with only one game left in the regular season, none of them have been fixed.
The Hoosiers are now at a point where a loss in their regular season finale on Saturday would mean ending the conference season with a 6-12 record. That would be worse than any Indiana team since 2010-11 (3-15), Crean’s third season at the helm.
Last year’s team was led in a good deal of its huddles by senior point guard Yogi Ferrell, now a starter for the Dallas Mavericks. Hardly, if any, this season have been led by players.
That team never needed Crean to point out during the game, step by step, how to run a play. On the last offensive possession before the final media timeout of the night, among several instances, that’s exactly what he did.
Those are just a few of the many glaring examples that make this year’s team a far cry from the Big Ten Champions of a season ago.
“Our guys are positive,” Newkirk said. “We’re just going to keep fighting, keep working, just get back out there tomorrow and just fix it.”
The season is now 30 games old. The time for these issues to be resolved has come and gone.
A team that was No. 3 in the AP Poll back in November may find themselves on the outside of the NIT come Selection Sunday.
(Photo credit: Purdue Athletics)