INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana left Washington in a dour mood.
Tom Crean knows his team can’t afford to let it linger if it intends to continue chasing another national championship banner.
After falling two wins short of their own expectations, making their first Final Four trip 2002, the Hoosiers headed home after Thursday’s stinging loss to Syracuse trying to keep this loss in perspective.
“These guys have done a fantastic job. There will be a time to celebrate them, but they’ve done things that have not been done in Indiana in a long, long time, and they did it from scratch,” coach Tom Crean said. “When we look at that, we will feel good about that and there are a lot of things to celebrate for them.”
Certainly the three seniors who helped Indiana rebound from a 6-win season the year before their arrival and the teammates who helped put the Hoosiers back on the national college basketball map have plenty of memorable moments — Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Kentucky, the school’s first outright Big Ten title in two decades, the most weeks of any team in the No. 1 spot all season.
But disappointed Hoosiers fans are already pondering what the future might hold.
There are plenty of questions heading into the offseason, including whether 7-foot sophomore Cody Zeller and 6-foot-5 defensive stopper Victor Oladipo will leave school early for the NBA. Both are projected to be top 10 picks in June’s draft, and if they do declare, they could improve their draft stock during pre-draft workouts. Crean has promised to provide both players with the best advice he can get from NBA scouts, though neither Zeller or Oladipo was prepared to talk about his future Thursday night.
“I’ve been focused on Indiana Hoosier basketball and I loved playing with these guys, and I’ve enjoyed the ride,” Oladipo said. “I’m never going to forget this team, the players on this team, this coaching staff, anything. That’s all I’ve really been thinking about.”
If they do leave, the Hoosiers have some replacement parts in place such as tough-guy forward Will Sheehey, highly-touted freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea and backup guard Remy Abell. They also can build around another strong class of incoming freshmen.
If Zeller and Oladipo stay, as most Indiana fans hope, Crean and his staff will face a different kind of quandary — trying to fit a six-man recruiting class into just three open spots. Crean has repeatedly indicated he has a contingency plan in place though he has not elaborated about it publicly.
The Hoosiers and their fans just didn’t think they’d be facing this dilemma until sometime in April, but their worst performance of the season came at exactly the wrong moment and against Syracuse’s zone defense that exposed some of the flaws Indiana must get fixed if they intend to make a deeper tourney run next season.
On Thursday, Indiana finished with more turnovers (19) than baskets (16) and a season-low point total in the 61-50 loss. Afterward, Crean explained the Hoosiers and point guard Yogi Ferrell, in particular, had never seen a zone played quite that way.
“We got tentative because we kept trying to put the ball in from places that it just wasn’t going to come from there, it had to come more from the wing, so he will learn from it,” Crean said when asked about Ferrell. “He will be a great learner from it.”
Still, the Hoosiers (29-7) have a solid foundation to build around following a season full of accomplishments.
They started the season ranked No. 1 for only the third time in school history and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for only the third time in school history, too.
Indiana won more than 25 games in back-to-back years for the first time since 1991-92 and 1992-93. It reached the regional semifinals in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1993 and 1994.
And, of course, the three seniors — Watford, Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston — who came in when the cupboard was bare and turned a reeling program back into a national contender.
None of that will be forgotten.
“It’s been full of up’s and down’s but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Watford said when asked to describe his career at Indiana. “I love my teammates, and I’m happy to be an Indiana Hoosier.”
Even if the final chapter ended a little earlier than anybody expected.
“Well, we have had a heck of a ride with this group, and it doesn’t feel like that tonight, won’t feel like that for a couple of days, maybe longer,” Crean said. “But the bottom line is that this program has come from so far and I hope at some point in time, the seniors, the guys on this team will remember that they did things that hadn’t been done first off in 20 years at Indiana but more importantly there are not any programs, whether it be Syracuse, Kentucky, Carolina, Duke, you name it that are the blue-blood programs of the country that have had to endure what these guys have had to endure. They have done it with perseverance, toughness, and improvement and they have done it with great class and they will all be better for it.”