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Tuesday could be turning point for Indiana

1/15/2014

If it wasn’t a must-win, then what was it?

Indiana entered Tuesday’s matchup against previously undefeated, third-ranked Wisconsin in a bind. The young Hoosiers have some gifted athletes, but they’ve struggled against elite opponents and subsequently missed chances to register the victories that impress the selection committee.

Had they lost to the Badgers in Bloomington -- instead of pulling off the 75-72 upset -- it would not have surprised many since they’d lost their last 12 matchups against Wisconsin.

But they also would have suffered their third defeat in four games. A 1-3 Big Ten record would not have been fatal, necessarily. But later this week, they’ll face a Northwestern team that just beat the Illinois squad that outplayed them in Champaign.

A road game against Michigan State will follow. Then Illinois again.

They’ll kick off February with matchups against capable Michigan and Minnesota squads.

For a program asking underclassmen to play like veterans, it was easy to see how a loss to Wisconsin could have led an early free fall for Indiana.

Maybe they’d recover in time to make a push into the NCAA tournament. In recent years, other youthful Big Ten squads in similar positions, however, did not.

Indiana needed a spark.

So its 10-point deficit with 13:30 to go was more than a gap. It was a moment that could have extended its rough start in conference play and added another loss to a résumé that looked hollow entering the week.

The Hoosiers had recovered from a 15-point gap in their previous game, a win at Penn State. But this was different.

Wisconsin hadn’t buckled all year. And the Badgers had beaten better teams. Florida, Saint Louis, Iowa.

Equipped with the top offense in the Big Ten prior to Tuesday, they had a tendency to submit teams down the stretch. And they were in position again to force the Hoosiers to tap in Bloomington.

But the Badgers cooled off. And Yogi Ferrell (25 points, four assists, no turnovers), who’d been benched for a brief stretch in the second half, began to control the floor.

He had help. Evan Gordon, Will Sheehey, Noah Vonleh and Stanford Robinson were all contributors in Indiana’s 14-2 run over the next five minutes.

Sometimes a team matures in the middle of a game. The Hoosiers did that.

Facing a deficit against an experienced and unblemished Wisconsin squad, they were the better team in the final minutes.

It started with Ferrell, who could have pouted after Tom Crean kept him on the sideline after halftime. But he shook it off and helped the Hoosiers handle Wisconsin down the stretch.

His 3-pointer and jumper put Indiana ahead by five points with two minutes to play. His late free throws sealed the win.

If Crean can get that from his sophomore leader -- remember, he’s only a sophomore -- then Indiana can grab additional quality wins in league play.

Vonleh, a potential lottery pick, is growing. Sheehey is playing like the veteran Indiana needs. Gordon, Robinson and others can help, too.

The Hoosiers averaged 17.0 turnovers in their first three Big Ten games. They committed nine against Wisconsin. They hit 52 percent of their shots.

And they beat (arguably) the best team in the Big Ten.

It’s too early to make grand assumptions about the potential long-term positives of the win. Indiana should be more confident. But it’s difficult for young teams to turn a big win into a winning streak. They usually wrestle with inconsistency.

The win should be encouraging for Crean’s program, but it doesn’t solve everything. Yes, the Hoosiers competed with an elite team in a game that wasn’t finalized until the final seconds and they won. Indiana displayed a rare grit against the Badgers, too.

It’s still just one win. There are 14 more Big Ten games to play. Indiana could rise or fall in the coming weeks.

So maybe Tuesday’s game wasn’t a must-win.

Then again, for a young team seeking a turning point, maybe it was.