IPFW, or Fort Wayne, or whatever.
Consider where the Mastodons basketball program has been, even within the last decade. The whole program got started a few seasons after Bob Knight came to Indiana — and were in Division II as recently as 2001. They toiled as independents until the shifting tectonics of conference realignment left the Summit League needing a new addition in 2007. Dane Fife left the head post at the program for an assistant’s job under Tom Izzo willingly. This isn’t Butler or Valparaiso or Indiana State or Evansville. Hell, Fort Wayne doesn’t have even half the basketball tradition of IUPUI.
But, slowly and quietly, Jon Coffman’s been building a program in northeast Indiana. Coming off a 24-win season in 2015-16, this is a Fort Wayne team expected to contend with North Dakota State for a Summit League title -- and possibly bring the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid back to Allen County. It’s the exact type of team most big time programs want to avoid on the schedule altogether, home or away: there’s a non-zero chance of losing and a win won’t be appreciated or noticed by fans or the committee.
But Indiana scheduled Fort Wayne anyway. In their own arena. And lost.
It was the best night in the history of the Fort Wayne program. It was, likely, a good thing for Indiana. And, perhaps most importantly, it was good for college basketball.
In an era of buy-games and top programs filling their schedules with a gaggle of sub-300 KenPom teams, college basketball’s early season schedule has become homogenous. Top programs play nearly the same sort of non-conference schedule every year, with the following ingredients:
- Some sort of neutral-site, made-for-TV showcase game(s)
- Neutral-site preseason tournament
- Conference challenge game
- Maybe one home-and-home series with another major program
- Fill in the gaps with low-majors projected to finish in bottom half of conference
Why? It’s a product of self-preservation from coaches and, well, money for TV networks and schools. In an effort to draw eyeballs from the NBA’s valuable and growing demographic, cable TV networks have found a formula that works: matching up big-fanbase programs that often also act as NBA feeder teams. You get a guaranteed ratings floor with the size of the Kentucky, Kansas, and Indiana fanbases — and a high upside for casual fans. Those games resonate with coaches and programs looking to build NCAA Tournament resumes and make an impact on recruits, too.
High-major vs. mid-major games often only exist as filler for cable networks, the risk of blowout is far too high and casual fans most often aren’t familiar enough with the quality of the mid-major team to be a draw. There’s no incentive for coaches or big programs to schedule such games either, but plenty of downside. Win a road contest against a quality mid-major team? No one will notice. Lose? You’re getting dinged by the committee and killed by fans and the media. But, Indiana did it anyway. Sure, concessions were made by Fort Wayne in ticket distribution. And playing a “home game” for James Blackmon may have been a motivation, just as Indiana did for Cody Zeller in Evansville and North Carolina did last season for Marcus Paige when they lost to Northern Iowa in Cedar Rapids.
But just listen to Jon Coffman.
"They'll be talking about this in Fort Wayne for 50 years." Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman thanks Tom Crean for scheduling. This is great. pic.twitter.com/vq3gAXhs0X— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) November 23, 2016
College basketball is at its best when it’s at its weirdest. The charm and appeal comes not from the quality of play, but in the 350-some-odd teams playing for the same championship in a given season and the chaos that can come along with that. If the NCAA Selection Committee wishes to do what’s in the best interest of college basketball, they should find some way to incentivize big time programs to go play early season road games once again.
In reality, this game won’t matter much for Indiana in the long run — and might even be a good thing. Like, for god sakes, it’s basketball on November 22. We’ve been down this road before. OG Anunoby was sick, effectively didn’t play, and Indiana had some defensive issues exposed on the road against a pretty decent team. You could’ve predicted that, and had this game been in Champaign, or Minneapolis, or Happy Valley — you would’ve had that concern going in and would be far less incredulous this morning. But because the jersey says Fort Wayne rather than, say, Illinois, this:
If anyone thought Crean was your coach- he just proved you wrong tonight. Fire him. NOW!— Hoosier Sports Live (@HoosiersLive) November 23, 2016
Indiana will have ample opportunity to mitigate this loss — and that Kansas win will already go a long way in doing so. You’ll have North Carolina, Butler, and Louisville all in the state of Indiana before the calendar turns to 2017. Win one and you’re probably fine. Win two and no one will remember this loss. Win three and I’m retweeting all of your angry, dumb tweets after this game.
Indiana lost a game. But it was a win for the city of Fort Wayne. It was a win for all of the quality, small programs that struggle with scheduling and couldn’t ever dream of getting one of the Big Boys at home.
It was a win for college basketball.
I hope it happens again.