BLOOMINGTON -- Conspiracy theorists are out in force in the wake of Hoosier defeat. Dark forces are at work robbing the Cream 'n Crimson of justice and victory.
Do you think it's an accident that Indiana lost at Illinois just a few days after Beyonce flashed an Illuminati sign during her Super Bowl halftime show, thus causing a second-half power outage (you don't REALLY believe the reports absolving her?), thus causing two storm fronts to merge on the East Coast to create a historic Nor'easter?
Except, of course, there is no conspiracy.
Well, at least, that's what THEY want you to believe.
Anyway, the buzz about whether Illinois had too much time to run its game-winning in-bounds play Thursday night (NEWS FLASH: it was still only NINE-TENTHS of a second!) misses the point, which is that No. 1 Indiana blew the game in a dozen ways, it's irrelevant now and beat Ohio State on Sunday.
Repeat -- beat Ohio State.
A 1-1 result from road games to Illinois and the No. 10 Buckeyes was a reasonable goal for this week. Yes, 2-0 would have been great, but given the wacky world of college basketball in general, and the brutal nature of the Big Ten (see Wisconsin over Iowa in two overtimes and Michigan over Ohio State in OT for confirmation) in particular, it was extremely unlikely.
Beat the Buckeyes (17-5 overall, 7-3 in the Big Ten) and order is restored. Lose and a conference title and a likely No. 1 NCAA tourney seed ain't happening.
It's that simple.
IU went 8-2 in the easy part of its Big Ten schedule, recognizing that “easy” is a relative term in conference play. It lost two games -- Thursday's 74-72 choke job at Illinois and last month's 64-59 home stunner to Wisconsin -- it shouldn't have lost. It should be 10-0 in the league with a solid margin of error in its bid for its first conference championship since 2002 and first No. 1 NCAA tourney seed since 1993.
The margin is gone.
The Hoosiers (20-3) are tied with No. 3 Michigan (21-2) and No. 12 Michigan State (19-4) for the Big Ten lead. They have road games with those two schools, plus No. 18 Minnesota (17-6). They also have a home game against Ohio State.
So what will be emphasized given this daunting schedule?
Tom Crean has a few thoughts.
“The schedule is daunting for everybody,” Indiana's coach said. “It's what it's been all week -- improvement. We can get a lot better.”
IU has struggled with killer instinct against elite competition (see nail-biter wins over Minnesota and Michigan as examples). Beating the Central Connecticut States of the college basketball world was fantasy that has no bearing now. You need 40 minutes of tough minded play. The Hoosiers had 37 minutes at Illinois and it wasn't good enough.
“My lens is improvement,” Crean said. “That's the lens I look at it through. I have to hope that we get the whole team to look at it through the same lens.
“That's the trick. The teams that do that the best are the ones that are successful. You have to keep improving. You have to keep having the togetherness. You've got to play through mistakes. When you've got a chance to put somebody away, you've got to put them away.”
Why isn't Indiana putting teams away?
“It's obvious,” Crean said. “You've got to know every team's strengths, and (Illinois') strength is their three-point shooting. Our strength is not over-helping (on defense).
“There is a fine line that we're trying to get to. Sometimes what happens, you get so consumed with your man that you either face guard too much and you leave a man on an island with the ball, or you over-help in a situation and you rotate back.”
TRANSLATION: You mess up.
So IU heads to Ohio State, which has the Big Ten's leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas (the ex-Bishop Luers standout averages 19.9 points). It has, if you believe coach Thad Matta, the conference's best on-ball defender in Aaron Craft (he looked awfully good in defending Michigan's Trey Burke last Tuesday). It has a formidable home court advantage. Matta is a Big Ten-best 149-13 at home in the last nine years, 67-4 in the last four years.
Crean will have a sold game plan to deal with all that, but when you get past all the Xs and Os, it comes down to this:
“You can't leave their strengths. You can't let them have their strengths.”
That's no conspiracy. It's fact.