There were only a couple thousand fans in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the Hoosiers could hear them.
After a dreary season in near-empty arenas, Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis found himself dunking in transition during a second-half run, slapping the backboard as a partisan crowd in Indianapolis roared. But once the air came out of the Hoosiers’ offense Thursday in a 61-50 loss to Rutgers in their opening Big Ten tournament game, the crowd turned.
Chants of “Fire Archie” became more than audible.
A disappointing season had finally met its end, and Jackson-Davis was defending his coaches, including Archie Miller, saying it wasn’t the staff’s fault that the Hoosiers were missing shots. They missed 13 in a row to end Thursday’s game, taking their success rate down to 37.5% on the night.
But the culmination of a frustrating season earned a visceral response. This IU team lost six straight games to end the season, as an up-and-down season went straight down. This team, including its coach, had lost a fraction of its fans, as IU will most certainly miss the NCAA tournament yet again, a killer blow after last year’s opportunity at March Madness was stolen away.
IU (12-15) aimed to be better than this, but just fell short, again and again. Cheers turning into boos was hard for Jackson-Davis to hear in what could be his final game in a Hoosier uniform.
“It’s sad that we disappointed them,” Jackson-Davis said, “and that’s something we’re just going to have to live with.”
Miller was contrite about the Hoosiers’ issues postgame. They just didn’t have enough depth in the frontcourt, especially after Joey Brunk missed the season to a back injury. IU’s guard play wasn’t up to snuff, especially the Hoosiers’ ability to hit 3-point shots. They hit just 13-of-74 from deep in their last four games of the season, including 2-of-16 on Thursday.
That led to some tough questions. When Miller was asked about the chants in the stands, he said he didn’t hear them. When asked if he believes he will be back next season, Miller said he’s not worried about that.
“I’m not entering any offseason wondering if I’m gonna be back. Those decisions are made higher up than me,” Miller said. “My job is to coach the team.”
If he is afforded a fifth year, it’s Miller’s job to take stock and find a way out of this NCAA tournament drought, which still dates back to 2016. This year, the Hoosiers will not make a tournament that’s going to be hosted entirely within their state’s borders. First-round games will be played at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, but the Hoosiers’ season is over.
“Like every program at this time, you have to take inventory,” Miller said. “Like I told our team, the expectations coming into this year, coming into this league, there was a lot of uncertainty about how things were going to work. We got our opportunities, and we didn’t cash in on them. And performance matters. Our performance here this season was inconsistent.”
Inconsistencies led to a myriad of close losses, and this one was no different. IU played with heart and hustle in the first half, building a 21-11 lead. Jackson-Davis was especially active, scoring 11 of his team-high 19 points in the first 10-plus minutes of the game. The 6-foot-9 forward was running the floor, dunking, and he was able to get his left hand working on post-ups in the halfcourt.
The pieces around Jackson-Davis were performing, too. Rob Phinisee attacked the basket for a layup. He also fed Jackson-Davis for an alley-oop slam. Al Durham hit a key 3-pointer to start things off. Race Thompson, who was able to start despite an ankle injury, took a steal the length of the floor for points.
Defensively, IU was able to hold Rutgers to 4-of-17 shooting to start the game, along with 0-of-6 from 3-point range.
But then, as often has been the case, the Hoosiers faded. Rutgers made its next four shots from beyond the arc. The Knights made nine of their final 12 field goal attempts overall going into the half, feasting on IU’s busted coverages, as well as some ballhandling miscues. Phinisee, for one, tossed a lazy pass that was intercepted by Geo Baker, taken the length of the floor for a dunk.
That sent the Knights (15-10) into the half ahead, 33-32, because the Hoosiers didn’t score in the final 2:46 of the frame.
The game ended up on a seesaw in the second half, both teams going blow for blow. Eventually, both lost their wits offensively, and play became somewhat frenetic. The slightest spark was bound to be the difference, and Paul Mulcahy found it for the Knights.
Mulcahy connected on two 3-pointers to give Rutgers its largest lead, 55-48, with 5:32 remaining. Two free throws from Durham would eventually break a scoring drought of 7:15 for the Hoosiers, cutting the deficit to five. But on a missed 3-pointer from Mulcahy, Myles Johnson was able to tap in a rebound over Phinisee in the paint and pushed it back to 57-50 with under two minutes left.
IU just couldn’t make a shot, even at the free throw line. Phinisee missed the front end of two one-and-one opportunities, starving IU of a chance to close. Jackson-Davis had already come up empty on another key pair during that long scoring drought. IU finished 6-of-15 from the free throw line, including 2-of-8 in the second half.
Not the kind of effort IU needed, in any respect.
“I don’t think it was anything to do with the fact our offense was the way that it was or blaming the coaches or anything. I feel like we had a lot of good shots, we had layups, but we just point-blank missed them,” Jackson-Davis. “We missed eight free throws down the stretch. If we made them, we would have been up 58-57.
“Our inability to put the ball in the basket just killed us.”
Jackson-Davis now has a tough decision on his hands, whether to stay another year or try for the next level. He said he will wait a few weeks before thinking over his options.
“Right now, I’m not worried about that,” Jackson-Davis said. “I’ll get all the feedback I need, and then I’ll go from there with my decision.”
Right then, the Hoosiers were just sitting in agony.
Sophomore guard Armaan Franklin, who played through a foot injury, was visibly downcast after the game. He was asked about the frustrations of falling short, again.
“It’s very frustrating, it’s the first round, not making the NCAA tournament. We just have to keep building, stick to what we’re doing, trusting each other, trusting the coaches, and keep moving forward,” Franklin said. “Not dwelling on the past, but looking to the future.”
Miller was trying to stay focused on the future, as well.
“You gotta make sure we are doing everything you can to progress and get better,” Miller said, “which I know we will.”