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Ben Smith

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Hoosiers left vulnerable after peaking too early

– I see what Jim Boeheim did there. He made a guy 7-feet tall disappear.

He made Cody Zeller so gone for such long stretches of time, it seemed like a trick of the light that, in the end Thursday night, Zeller wound up with a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds). Christian Watford, meanwhile, Boeheim turned into a bricklaying turnover machine. And what did he do with Indiana’s backcourt?

This was magic or some dark alchemy, what Boeheim’s long, physical, active 2-3 zone did to Indiana’s regal-again Hoosiers. And the real magic, the true alchemy, was this: It really wasn’t magic at all.

Indiana’s out of the tournament today because, frankly, it peaked in February. Everyone else still in the Madness got better, and the Hoosiers didn’t.

The hard nut of it is, they got no further down the trail than they did a year ago, and that’s because they were never the same team after beating Michigan State in East Lansing on Feb. 19.

After that, the Hoosiers went 3-3 in their last six games and barely escaped Dayton last week against a tough-minded but under-equipped Temple team.

And then came Thursday, which actually seemed to begin happening in the days prior, when Indiana’s players simply couldn’t stop talking about how to attack Syracuse’s zone.

Unfairly or not, it left the impression the Hoosiers were dwelling more on what Syracuse was going to try to do to them rather than what they were going to do to Syracuse. And then came game time, and Syracuse did it.

Bigger than IU on the perimeter, the Orange simply took Indiana’s backcourt out of the game; between them, Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell had zero points on 0-for-8 shooting to go with four assists and six turnovers. They bodied Zeller and Watford in the middle of the zone – something Zeller in particular was vulnerable to all season – forcing them into a combined 7-of-22 shooting night and blocking 10 shots.

And as Zeller and Watford went, so went Indiana. Take away Victor Oladipo’s 5-of-6 shooting, and the Hoosiers were 11 of 42 for the night. Against that Syracuse zone, the Hoosiers made two more turnovers (18) than they did field goals (16).

“They were just long and active,” Oladipo said when it was done.

“They have great length, there’s no doubt about it, and you’ve got to go up and power through it,” Indiana coach Tom Crean concurred.

And?

“And at times we did. At times, we didn’t,” he said.

Nine words to neatly sum up the entire end game of a season in which Indiana won its first Big Ten title and was a No. 1 seed in Da Tournament for the first time in 20 years. At times, across the last month of the season, Indiana did what it had done to make it No. 1 for more weeks than anyone this season. And at times, it didn’t.

And then came Thursday, when it really didn’t.

And now?

Now Zeller and Oladipo either go or don’t go (“I haven’t thought about it one bit,” Zeller said, and Oladipo concurred). Crean brings in another slew of blue-chip reinforcements. And the work commences on turning next year’s March into this year’s February.

“This program has come from so far,” Crean said early Friday. “There are not any programs … that have had to endure what these guys have had to endure. They have done it with perseverance, toughness, and improvement and they have done it with great class, and they will all be better for it.”

He can only hope.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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