File this under "an issue I hoped to avoid but people keep talking about it." The issue, of course, relates to the comments of ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb, who has made some less-than-flattering comments about IU while in studio during IU's wins over Kentucky and Ohio State. I'm certainly not above taking on members of the media, particularly members of the local media or blogosphere when they are driving a narrative that is unfair or based on a false premise. I've certainly taken on Bob Kravitz before, and other members of the national media or blogosphere sometimes require some pushback, but I generally try to limit it to commentators who are either: a) of some local interest or b) of some national importance. Doug Gottlieb falls into neither category. Sure, he has an ESPN radio show and does some studio work, but he certainly isn't held in high esteem the way some ESPN commentators are, such as Bob Knight and Jay Bilas.
I have no idea if Doug Gottlieb actually dislikes IU. Sure, it's possible that he is still smarting over the 20-point loss he suffered at Assembly Hall during his only season as Notre Dame's point guard. Perhaps he is mad at IU booster Tom Spiece because of Gottlieb's arrest for stealing his ND dorm mates' credit cards and using them at the Spiece store in Mishawaka. I don't know. My suspicion is that it's just the usual ESPN nonsense, similar to the ridiculous and tired theater engaged in by Lou Holtz and Mark May on ESPN's football studio shows. At one point, after Gottlieb said something or another, the camera remained on him longer than expected and caught his smarmy grin toward someone off screen. That really made me doubt the sincerity of what he was saying. Unfortunately, ESPN seems to direct this sort of hair-pulling from its lesser lights. Truly respected analysts such as Knight and Bilas won't play (why a great coach like Lou Holtz does is beyond me), but where is Doug Gottlieb going to get a better gig?
While I don't want to give inordinate attention to Gottlieb, a point that he and others have made about IU is that he'll believe it when IU wins against an elite team on the road. During Tom Crean's tenure, one of the favorite points of his critics has been to raise Crean's horrible record away from Assembly Hall. During his first three years, Crean won only three games outside of Bloomington: against Division II Chaminade in Maui in 2008; against Pitt at MSG in 2009-10; and at Penn State a few weeks later. IU has three such wins this year (@ Evansville, @ NC State, Notre Dame @ the Fieldhouse in Indianapolis), but now the standard is that IU has to beat elite teams on the road. Uh, why? Look, I certainly understand that to win the Big Ten or to compete for a top NCAA Tournament seed, it is necessary to beat good teams (i.e., NCAA Tournament or bubble teams) on the road. But I reject the notion that it is necessary to beat teams that are the caliber of Ohio State and Kentucky on the road to prove that IU is "for real," "back," or whatever the cliche is. What the people who are advancing this theory seem to miss is that what makes elite teams elite is that they hardly ever lose at home, even against other elite teams. Sure, it happens, such as in 2010, when Ohio State and Purdue (certainly elite pre-Hummel injury) had a "reverse split," where each team won on the other team's court. But it's not that common.
Let's take a look at the #1 seeds for last year's tournament. Ohio State went 16-2 in the Big Ten. While OSU had a couple of nice road wins in the non-conference (Florida and Florida State), the Buckeyes' two Big Ten losses were at Purdue and at Wisconsin, which were by far the best teams in the conference other than OSU. Duke went 27-4/13-3 last year and earned a #1 seed. But during the regular season, Duke's best road wins were against the likes of non-NCAA Tournament teams such as Miami and Maryland. Duke's four losses were on the road against non-conference foe St. John's, and at UNC, Virginia Tech, and Florida State, all of which were among the top 5 in the ACC, although only UNC was an elite team. Based on their overall record and their perfect home/neutral record, Duke earned a #1 seed. Kansas was 30-2 in the regular season, and earned a #1 seed even though its best road wins were against Pomeroy #25 Michigan and #44 Missouri. Pitt earned a #1 seed despite dropping home games to Notre Dame and Tennessee, and even though its best road wins were over Villanova (9 seed), West Virginia (8 seed), and Georgetown (6 seed).
Please don't misunderstand my point. As much fun as we have had to date, I really don't expect IU to be in the hunt for a #1 seed. But let's suppose that IU does the following: 1) loses on the road to the top 4 (other than IU) Big Ten teams right now: MSU of course, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue; and 2) wins every other game. That would make IU 27-4 and 14-4 in the Big Ten. That might well be good enough for a share of the Big Ten title and would have IU in no worse than a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. IU can get to that level without "proving it" on the road against an elite team. Again, I think that the above scenario is the absolute best case scenario, and I think the games at Minnesota and Michigan and home games against Purdue, MSU, Michigan, and even Illinois are dangerous. But again: of last year's four #1 seeds, there was only one truly elite road win: OSU's win at eventual #2 seed Florida. After that, the best was Kansas's win at #8 seed Michigan.
What this really is about is a related issue, which is how much of voting for the top 25 should be based on past performance and the eyeball test, and how much should be based on pure resume considerations (i.e., in-season performance)? As a Blogpoll voter on the football side, my goal is to be ranking teams purely on resume by the time we get through about week 5. Unquestionably, if IU had been ranked to begin the season, we would be comfortably in the top 10 by now, perhaps the top 5. But, we weren't ranked preseason, and haven't been ranked in nearly four years. I don't blame voters for some skepticism, but that skepticism has its limits. Sure, we haven't beat a top 10 team on the road, but neither has anyone else so far. Sure, IU lacks a true playmaking point guard and some perimeter quickness and doesn't have great frontcourt depth. All of those things are true, but if this keeps up, at some point IU's critics will have to accept that IU has found a way to offset those legitimate weaknesses. Still, I don't think much is gained by complaining. I think that a #12 ranking is pretty fair at this point, and IU either will earn more or will not.