WASHINGTON – They stumbled down the hallway of the Verizon Center late Thursday night as sentries in a war they could not win. Indiana players Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo stared surprised at the massive gantlet of cameras that lined the corridor. It was the look they wore for much of their Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse.
A look that said they never saw what was coming.
No. 1 in the NCAA tournament's East Region fell hard at the Verizon Center. It fell like no one could have imagined. And it fell to the oldest trick of the fourth-seeded Orange. In fact it fell to Syracuse's only trick, the one it has played for decades in the Big East and the one it will play in its ACC future. Who would have thought Indiana would collapse in the jaws of a simple zone defense.
"That's all we play, they shouldn't be surprised," Syracuse guard Brandon Triche said after his team's 61-50 victory over the Hoosiers.
But surprised or not, Indiana did not look ready for what it got on Thursday night – at least not for the fierceness with which Syracuse came at it. Later the Orange would say they played their zone with a greater intensity than perhaps the Indiana players expected. Their own ferocity waned at times during the regular season and must have looked remarkably soft to anyone watching their game tapes, they admitted. Yet no matter the level of miscalculation the Hoosiers might have made, nothing explains the power with which Syracuse overwhelmed them.
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And as Indiana continues to climb back from the wasteland that it was five years ago, there is another level of toughness it still must attain. As fantastic as Zeller has been in his two college seasons, he was physically crushed in what is probably his final game on his way to the NBA lottery. As promising as point guard Yogi Ferrell looked in the regular season, he had four turnovers, just one assist and zero points in the face of Syracuse's defense.
Establishing an identity takes time, and perhaps no team practices as ferociously as Indiana. This is, after all, the team that has worn boxing gloves on the day before games. Its coach, Tom Crean, has taken a demolished superpower to a height it couldn't have expected to attain, not this soon. The fact that it was expected to go to the Final Four just four years after 6-25 and a one-win season in the Big Ten says a lot about how much Crean has been able to jump start the process.
He told them as much in the locker room after the loss. And he tried to say it in the few minutes he was in the interview room after the game.
"The bottom line is this program has come so far," he said. "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 this be Syracuse, Kentucky, Duke or whatever … that have had to endure what these guys have had to endure."
Yet even in grace he had to know his team was flattened in a way that said it will have to be taller and stronger. It will have to find ways to handle simple zones. And it will have to fight through teams that come at it with lots of hands and arms.
Indiana's problem wasn't that it didn't play hard Thursday. It played very hard, even at the end when defeat was certain and broken teams often see the scoreboard and relent. No team in this tournament may have wanted to win as much as the Hoosiers. It's hard to imagine anyone preparing for this game with more zest. But the Hoosiers lost because of physics. They lost because two, three and sometimes four men surrounded Zeller when he had the ball. They lost because Zeller tried to shove the ball through those arms to no avail. They lost, too, because when they tried to pass to an open shooter outside, the zone's tentacles reached there, too, and slapped the ball away.
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When asked later what kind of team matches up best with Syracuse, Triche said it was one with a good center and guards who can handle the ball and shoot. Told that sounded a lot like Indiana, he shrugged.
"Oh well," he said. "They had one inside guy. You take that one inside guy away and all they have are small forwards and guards."
It was a hard lesson for a program heading the right way. While Crean might have blown up the timetable and pushed Indiana farther than it was ready to go, this was not the dream season. Indiana is back. The march of great players to Bloomington will not cease.
"There's a lot of things to celebrate for them," Crean said referring to Watford, Zeller and Oladipo who will all likely be gone next year.
But Thursday was a painful reminder of how much farther Indiana has to go to reach that destiny it dared to believe it could own.
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