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BLOOMINGTON -- The nation ramps up for NCAA tourney excitement and the Indiana Hoosiers watch from the sidelines.
This can't happen.
It has, of course, and anger builds across the Hoosier Nation.
Thirty-two programs get ready for NIT action and IU ends its 17-15 mess of a season, rejected by the NIT, passing on a pay-to-play CBI opportunity that it should never have had to consider in the first place.
This is unacceptable.
IU is a championship program in the manner of North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky. It should be a national title contender, or, at least, a NCAA tourney participant, every season. That is the standard.
Coach Tom Crean has all the resources to do this -- facilities, tradition, salary, a passionate fan base, administrative support, major TV exposure, strong in-state high school talent, a national recruiting reputation.
The three years of sanction-caused misery, and the amazing fan support that came with it, are three years in the rear view mirror. Crean turned the program around, on and off the court. You can't overstate how impressive that was. He got the program back to No. 1. He produced a Big Ten championship and consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. His players thrive in the classroom as never before. The program was back.
You can't overstate how impressive that is.
But this is a bottom-line, what-have-you-done-lately, buck-stops-here profession. IU needed to blast away that 28-66 stretch, by far the worst in school history, with a decade or more of March Madness success.
Instead, it got a 7-11 Big Ten record that included a beyond-bad home loss to Penn State that ranked as one of the worst choke jobs of the 21st Century. On a day where Mike Davis -- yes, THAT Mike Davis, the fired ex-Hoosier coach -- coached Texas Southern into the NCAA tourney field, Crean coached the Hoosiers into spring break.
To the main reasons of bad shooting and too many turnovers, add these two difference makers:
This can't happen.
Yes, Crean had to replace four 1,000-point scorers, and often started three freshmen, but there was more than enough talent to win 20-plus games and earn a postseason bid.
Crean pushed a be-tough-and-competitive message that went unheeded. Maybe his approach was wrong (although he tried just about every method known to man and allowed by NCAA rules) for a freshman-sophomore dominated team.
Perhaps the players weren't basketball savvy enough, or the offense and defense too complex (Crean has a playbook thick enough to confuse Peyton Manning). Maybe the Hoosiers were soft and unfocused (Hanner Perea's OWI arrest just before playing rival Purdue showed, at minimum, very bad judgment).
Immaturity was a problem. Team chemistry was a problem, a product of losing winnable games again and again.
IU players improved individually, in particular talented freshmen Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson. Noah Vonleh lived up to his hype by winning Big Ten freshman of the year honors. He's projected as a lottery pick if he leaves early for the NBA draft (his family has reportedly talked to agents, which the NCAA allows). Sophomore Yogi Ferrell, once a shooting liability, became an all-conference offensive threat.
As a team, the Hoosiers did not improve. Nebraska did. Illinois did. IU's November flaws thrived into March.
That's a big problem, and, ultimately, it falls on Crean.
Kentucky had a similar fall-from-NCAA grace last year, but it was coming off a national championship, so coach John Calipari had equity Crean did not after the way the Hoosiers bumbled down the stretch last season (losing to Ohio State on Senior Night and to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tourney, nearly losing to Temple in the NCAA Tournament, getting crunched by Syracuse in the Sweet 16 while looking clueless against its 2-3 zone).
That negated the thrill from the dramatic win at Michigan that gave IU its first outright Big Ten title in 20 years. Given the fact they had a pair of top-4 NBA draft picks in Big MVP Victor Oladipo and All-American Cody Zeller, the perception was that the Hoosiers under-achieved and that Crean as a coach was, well, no Brad Stevens.
This season's non-conference schedule was a joke. Why would the basketball team, which had reestablished itself as a national power, play a weaker schedule than the perennially struggling football team?
It did not prepare the Hoosiers for Big Ten battles, and it showed.
IU's decision two years ago to stop playing Kentucky was beyond dumb. Yes, playing home-and-home is cool. Sure, Wildcats officials bear responsibility. And, yes, the Hoosiers offered a reasonable compromise (four years to include home and neutral site games). But Calipari, having seen what an energized Assembly Hall can do, wanted no part of a repeat visit.
Home and home was off the table.
So Crean and athletic director Fred Glass controlled two options:
1. Play UK at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, one of the great sports venues in America, in a game that would make major money, generate nationwide exposure, excite fans, and provide great preparation for the Big Ten.
2. Don't play Kentucky and end one of college basketball's best rivalries.
They chose Option 2, which did not play well nationally, then took it to a ludicrous level -- they replaced Kentucky with like, North Florida, even though Louisville coach Rick Pitino wanted a home-and-home series and was fine with playing the first game at Assembly Hall.
Are you kidding?
IU officials ended up with a schedule that ranked among America's worst, an embarrassment for a powerhouse program in a powerhouse conference. Yes, the NIT selection committee noticed, as the NCAA selection committee would have if the Hoosiers had been a bubble team.
They seem to have come to their scheduling senses. Next year the Hoosiers will play Louisville in New York. There will be a powerhouse team in an exempt event. And Crean has said a mystery team is coming to Assembly Hall that will excite fans.
In the meantime, we're left with March misery for the fourth time in Crean's six seasons, the first three understandable, the last not acceptable, and two things are certain:
This can't happen again.