INDIANAPOLIS — IU traded scoring runs with Illinois throughout Thursday’s 64-54 loss, but the Illini had the final say when they closed the game on an 11-2 run.
A defensive lapse by the Hoosiers led to Illinois guard Tracy Abrams knocking down a wide-open 3-pointer with 2:07 remaining in the game, providing his team some breathing room in what was at the time a one-point game.
“That was the dagger that hurt,” sophomore point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell said.
IU’s loss ended the team’s hopes of earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s always disappointing not to make the goal that we had set at the beginning of the year, but it’s been like a roller coaster this year,” Ferrell said.
He said the team’s goal was to win a national championship.
After a 17-15 record in their 2013-14 campaign, the Hoosiers will not be invited to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Instead, they are likely to play in the National Invitational Tournament.
Despite IU’s down year after making two consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16, there is a sense of hope among the players about next season.
“I think we can be very good, especially make a tournament run,” Ferrell said. “Of course we’re going to want to do that.”
Senior forwards Will Sheehey and Jeff Howard will graduate this spring, and graduate student guard Evan Gordon will exhaust his eligibility after this season.
However, most of the Hoosiers’ roster is set return next season, provided Big Ten Freshman of the Year Noah Vonleh — a potential top-10 pick in this year’s NBA draft — elects to stay in school.
IU Coach Tom Crean’s starting lineup Thursday included three freshmen and a sophomore, providing the Hoosiers a foundation to build upon for the future.
Across the board, IU’s freshmen have shown improvements in February and March.
Freshman guard Stanford Robinson scored a season-high 17 points off the bench in IU’s win against then-No. 20 Iowa on Feb. 27.
Troy Williams was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week last week after scoring 34 points on 15-for-21 shooting in two games.
Devin Davis earned the first start of his career last Saturday, scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds against No. 12 Michigan.
Robinson said next year will be a good one because the team gained confidence this season.
“I think in the beginning we were all dependent on Yogi, but now us stepping up gave us a lot of confidence coming in to next year or the NIT, to play even better as a team,” he said.
Robinson said the team improved its chemistry over the course of the season.
“Obviously not tonight, but as the end of the season started to come, I feel like we’ve all learned how to play together as a team,” he said.
Part of IU’s shortcomings may have been the result of the composition of the team’s roster and its lack of consistent shooters. Excluding Ferrell and Vonleh’s 3-point shooting, the rest of the Hoosiers shot a combined 27.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.
“I feel like we have a lot of people who can get to the rim at will,” Robinson said, adding that the Hoosiers don’t have a lot of players with the confidence to knock down jump shots.
IU’s lack of outside shooting could change this summer when the team’s three 2014 recruits — James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson and Max Hoetzel — arrive on campus. All three players are billed as sharpshooters by scouts.
“I mean, we can be really good with these new recruits coming in, just brings us more shooters to the table,” Robinson said.
The freshman guard said the addition of high-level shooters will give IU better spacing on offense, opening up the floor for its wing players.
“Individually I learned how to attack, attack, always attack and finish at difference levels, and even collapsing the defense and kicking it out,” Robinson said, when asked how he improved over the course of his freshman season. “I’m still working on that.”
Similarly to the individual development of IU’s young players, the team was a work in progress this season. The Hoosiers had four wins against ranked opponents but only had one winning streak longer than two games.
After the game, Vonleh said that after the first few games of Big Ten play, he thought they were going to finish at least among the top three teams in the Big Ten.
“But we lost a lot of close games,” he said. “We were up in a lot of the games, but in the second half we would get into a drought and we would end up losing.”
If Vonleh returns to IU and the team’s young shooters develop, the Hoosiers have the pieces in place to be among the top Big Ten teams next season and potentially make an NCAA Tournament run.