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COLUMN: Losing its way costs IU

Cody Zeller (40) and Indiana looked like a team that lost their edge and their confidence in the final minutes of Thursday's game, fumbling away an important road win.

John Groce said Thursday night that his team was “fortunate” to beat Indiana, as he called the Hoosiers a “great team.”

“I mean great,” he added for emphasis. He mightn’t have needed to, had Indiana played like a group confident in such an assertion initially.

The Hoosiers led by 12 at halftime, by 14 at one point in the second half and by double digits seven times in the last 20 minutes of Thursday night’s game, but they lost on what must go down as one of the worst mental mistakes of the college basketball season. That Tyler Griffey shook loose of a ball-watching Cody Zeller so easily was bad enough. That the play didn’t even appear to be using him as a primary option made the wide-open, game-winning layup even tougher to swallow.

To clear the deck immediately: This loss does not cripple Indiana’s season, though following it with another one at Ohio State this weekend would be a serious blow to any hope of a Big Ten title.

But Indiana lost on Thursday night nonetheless, if for no reason more than because they completely failed themselves, looking nothing like the team they are capable of being.

In the last 4:21 of the game, Indiana turned a 10-point lead into a 2-point defeat by shooting 1-of-5 from the field, just 1-of-2 from the free-throw line and 0-of-2 from behind the arc, with two turnovers. The Hoosiers were outscored to game’s end 15-3.

When at its best, Indiana looks something resembling unstoppable, particularly on offense. The Hoosiers score almost at will and in so many ways that opponents can’t adjust quickly enough to stop them before damage has been wrought on the scoreboard. That’s how a 16-15 lead turned into a 37-23 lead in 6 1/2 minutes in the first half. Illinois didn’t have enough ways to stop Indiana from taking control of the game.

IU began the night with sloppiness, but when the Hoosiers killed their turnover problems, they took control. Indiana did not give the ball away in the last 10 minutes of the first period. They would give it away eight times in the second 20 minutes though, and by game’s end, Illinois had scored 28 points, nearly 38 percent of its total scoreboard outlay, off of 14 takeaways.

“When we turn the ball over, we're not very good,” Crean said afterward, stating something made clear over 40 minutes Thursday night.

The problem, through 2/3 of Indiana’s season, appears to be this, as much as any other one thing: Indiana does not seem to recognize consistently how to play at its best for 40 minutes. The Hoosiers too often dominate games in stretches and then let periods of poor play drag them back to the middle. The valleys are not so deep as they were two years ago, but they can still sink this team to a very bad place.

And disregard the endless clichés about every Big Ten game presenting a tough challenge. Reality dictates recognition of fact: The first half of Indiana’s Big Ten road schedule was easier by far than its second half. The Hoosiers have not yet faced and beaten a team likely to make the NCAA Tournament in a true road environment.

Thursday’s loss is not the end of Indiana in 2013. The sky will still be hanging in the morning, and the Hoosiers will still be talented to win the Big Ten and more.

But this is a group, top to bottom, coaches to players, still incapable of dominance when it is presented. That cannot be argued with anyone carrying a written play-by-play account of the end of Thursday’s game.

This loss was not about the curse of being No. 1, although it — combined with Florida’s blowout loss at Arkansas and Kansas’ unbelievably poor performance against TCU — underscored once more the lack of a clear-cut dominant team in college basketball this year.

Indiana sometimes plays like a team that needs to win with style points. If it isn’t flying, it’s not sure how to behave. Such was the case Thursday night, when win-and-move-on would have been a perfectly acceptable approach.

Instead, the Hoosiers tightened up.

They pulled in two offensive rebounds in one possession inside the final media timeout and go no points from that trip at all.

Jordan Hulls passed up an open 3-pointer that at the time would have pushed the lead back to 11, opting to drive the lane for a running floater that hit the front of the rim.

Victor Oladipo, he of player-of-the-year talk and burgeoning lottery status, turned the ball over with seven seconds left by trying to dribble behind his back when he probably did not need to.

Tom Crean left two timeouts in his pocket, electing to gamble on his team’s defensive ability instead of letting Illinois set up a designed play (though he later said he wouldn’t have called timeout again, had he the situation to replay).

Indiana basically forgot how to be itself, and in doing so, committed an almost unbelievable collapse. IU followed its best week in five years with an empty, demoralizing defeat that should not have been.

It does not end the season, but it again asks questions we thought had been answered, and it leaves IU’s Big Ten regular-season title hopes in the balance.

Alternately, the win might just save Illinois’ NCAA Tournament dream, such has been the depth of its recent decline. Groce was right, though — his team was fortunate. If Indiana had remembered how to play like the “great” team the Illini struggled to contain for 25 of Thursday’s 40 minutes, then the Hoosiers would not have lost.

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