INDIANAPOLIS – The last stand of college basketball's Holy Land was brief and inglorious.
Here at the Big Ten tournament, the first two teams eliminated were Indiana and Purdue. The Hoosiers bogged down late and were beaten by Illinois, 64-54. The Boilermakers gave Ohio State all it could handle before falling, 63-61. Thus Elimination Thursday officially left the Hoosier State without a school whose name will be in the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket when it is unveiled Sunday.
From Fort Wayne to Evansville, there isn't even a bubble team to be found. Three days before Selection Sunday, the state is dismissed.
And that is a cultural disaster.
Nobody loves basketball more than the good people of Indiana. This is the state that gave us "Hoosiers." The home of John Wooden. The place where Bob Knight became a legend. And Larry Bird. The state where 41,000 people watched Damon Bailey win a state high school title. Hinkle Fieldhouse is here. UCLA's 88-game winning streak ended in Indiana. Butler's back-to-back miraculous Final Four appearances are the latest part of the lore.
And now? This year? When it comes to college hoops, Indiana might as well be Alaska.
This is the first time since 2005 that the state and its 10 Division I programs failed to put a team in the Big Dance – and there are four more bids to be had now than then. But before that, Indiana hadn't been shut out since 1973 – when there were 25 teams in the NCAA field.
So from a purely numerical standpoint, you can argue that this is the lowest the state has ever been in college basketball.
After being ranked No. 1 for part of last season, winning the Big Ten and earning an NCAA No. 1 seed, Indiana has backslid drastically. This will be the fourth time in six seasons under Tom Crean that the Hoosiers miss the NCAA tourney – something that wasn't expected to happen again after Crean's resolute program rebuild got Indiana back on the map in 2011-12. But here the Hoosiers are, 17-15 and likely to get an NIT bid based more on brand name and fan base than anything this particular team has to offer.
Asked postgame what the message is to his team, Crean paused. And thought. And paused some more. Nearly 30 seconds went by, and then he chose his words carefully.
"Bottom line is, we can play better," he said. "You have to match the toughness and the competitive spirit every time that you play. … Really what I want to do is try give a different way to say that message because I've given it a few times."
Purdue (15-17) was tied for last in the Big Ten this year. It was just the second time that's happened in the last 48 seasons. The other time was 2005-06, Matt Painter's first season at coach when he was rebuilding post-Gene Keady. The Boilermakers closed this year with 12 losses in their last 14 games, and now have consecutive losing seasons on their permanent record.
"I told our guys I didn't doubt their efforts [during the year], and our last game of the season I did doubt their effort," Painter said. "I didn't think we played hard as a group. We had a couple of individuals play hard, but as I group I didn't think we played very hard."
If the effort wasn't all there from the Indiana and Purdue players, their lethargy was matched by the fans. They were sufficiently beaten down to provide almost no home-court advantage for their teams Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Illinois and Ohio State pretty much played on a neutral floor, with no discomfort brought on by the fans.
Apathy is never a good sign.
The good news for both Painter and Crean is that Brad Stevens is no longer looming in the wings. The guy who took Butler to those consecutive Final Fours – and thus became the fantasy hire for fans of Purdue, Indiana and virtually every other big-time program in America – skedaddled for the NBA and Boston Celtics last summer. Where, it must be said, he is losing games in bulk.
And now so is the program he left behind.
Butler's gradual ascendancy to unlikely power gave way to an instant collapse amid a perfect storm of difficult circumstances. Stevens left precisely when the Bulldogs were making a major move up in class, from the mid-major Horizon League to the Big East. Then to top it off, the team's best player – guard-forward Roosevelt Jones – was lost for the season before it started due to wrist surgery. That was just what rookie head coach Brandon Miller needed.
The result was predictably grim: a 14-17 record and ninth-place finish in the 10-team Big East. The Bulldogs lost on a last-second basket by Seton Hall in the first round of the league tourney – their eighth loss by six points or fewer.
Butler wasn't the only Hoosier State team to struggle with conference transition and player losses. Notre Dame moved into the ACC, had Jerian Grant ruled ineligible and saw Cameron Biedscheid transfer. The Fighting Irish went 15-17 and were bounced in the first round of the ACC tournament by similarly woeful Wake forest.
On the mid-major level, Indiana State and Evansville were punched out by Goliath Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference. Ball State (5-25) was dismissed in the first round of the Mid-American Conference tourney. Valparaiso lost in the Horizon League semifinals to Milwaukee. And there was Hoosier-on-Hoosier crime in the Summit League, where IPFW eliminated IUPUI 84-57.
The dire status of the state was exemplified by the fact that IPFW – which went Division I in 2001 – became the last legitimate NCAA hope. Alas, it could not hold a late lead in the Summit final and lost to North Dakota State, 60-57.
When a newbie program nicknamed the Mastodons is the standard bearer for the state of Indiana, you know the season went off the rails.
In this moment of doubt and pain, there is only one place for the hoops Holy Land to turn: Hoosier Hysteria. The state high school tournament regionals are Saturday.
That will be the only meaningful basketball played in the sad state of Indiana this weekend.