Tonight, Indiana basketball will commence their campaign to retain the Big Ten title at 6:30 pm. Immediately after, Indiana football will play in only their 3rd bowl game in the last 21 years — and against their highest-ranked opponent since 1987. Those are the ingredients for what could be one of the most memorable, fun nights in recent memory for Indiana fans -- and would have been the stuff of dreams as recently as a handful of years ago. It also should be representative of a single, salient point for fans of Indiana athletics.
Indiana can be more than just a basketball school.
Take a moment to consider where Indiana athletics sat with its two flagship programs five years ago tonight. Indiana football had just concluded a hopeless 1-11 season in Kevin Wilson’s first season -- with the sole win coming over an FCS opponent. Tom Crean’s third Indiana basketball team had just gone through three seasons of hell, never winning more than 12 games. The shadow of Kelvin Sampson’s cell phone scandal and Terry Hoeppner’s tragic death still loomed over both program, and any sustained success for either seemed well beyond the horizon line.
Indiana football & basketball have finally reached that horizon.
Tom Crean’s hardcourt Hoosiers own two of the nation’s best wins in 2016, and seem well-positioned to challenge for and capture the program’s third outright Big Ten regular season title in the past five seasons. That’s a feat that’s only happened once in school history -- and three times in the Big Ten since 1940. They’ll start a quest toward a possible protected-seed start to the NCAA Tournament tonight, against a somewhat hapless Nebraska program. They’ll then get 6th ranked Louisville on New Year’s Eve, and 14th ranked Wisconsin two days later. Win the next three, and, congrats, Crean’s Hoosiers will boast one of the nation’s best resumes and will once again be in the conversation for a 1-seed come NCAA Tournament time.
But if Crean & Co. are solidifying their reemergence as a national power, Tom Allen’s football Hoosiers might be entering territory not seen in 30 years in Bloomington next season.
Kevin Wilson was forced out by Fred Glass amid player mistreatment allegations, a undoubtedly serious allegation & necessary measure. But Allen, who joined the Indiana staff after the now-public alleged incidents occurred, seems the right man to instill a more desirable culture within the program. Indiana will return nearly everyone but Dan Feeney next season, Richard Lagow will have another year to mature as a Big Ten signal-caller, and emerging defensive stars like Tegray Scales, Marcelino Ball, Marcus Oliver, and Rashard Fant will have another offseason in Tom Allen’s 4-2-5 system. Oh, and the 2017 schedule will feature 7 teams currently ranked 86th or lower in S&P. (Indiana is 48th, for context.) With likely as many as 8 games where the Hoosiers will be favored in 2017, Tom Allen’s set up to succeed in the immediate future at Indiana after the transition. A win over a once-CFP contender and ranked team in Utah on national TV would be one helluva offseason bump heading into such a season.
Almost assuredly at some point tonight, a smug BASKETBALL ONLY LOL IU FOOTBALL SUX WHO CARES fan (or beat writer / blog guy / radio host) will send some snarky-ass tweet about diluted bowl seasons and 6-6 teams not deserving bowls. It’ll come around the end of the basketball game and at kickoff, maybe roughly when a camera pans an undoubtedly mostly empty Levi’s Stadium. Might be when an extremely game and good Utah team races out to an early lead. Smug BASKETBALL ONLY LOL IU FOOTBALL SUX WHO CARES guy will be waiting, with that tweet in drafts, ready to tell you How Good He Is for caring about Indiana basketball, and how foolish you are for caring about Indiana football. Our advice to that guy?
JUST SHUT UP AND TRY IT MAN C’MON WE’RE GONNA PEER PRESSURE YOU INTO TRYING INDIANA FOOTBALL YOU DAMNED SQUARE
Tonight, Indiana football will play a ranked team on national TV in a bowl game on FOX with Gus Johnson calling it. It will be fun, because it’s sports — specifically the sports team you like, maybe even your alma mater! And Indiana football’s fun! It ends in a fiery car crash most times, but that’s fun! Getting your hopes up in the middle of the third quarter and getting repeatedly punched in the reproductive organs is enjoyable in some sort of very masochistic way! It’s an excuse to drink Triple-Digit Proof liquor on a weekday!
So, if you’re an Indiana basketball fan, come on over to FOX tonight after the game. Come enjoy our very stupid and fun football team, that will undoubtedly lead this game for three quarters or so before setting itself on fire.
Or, you know, maybe — come watch the start of something new. The start of something that could be very, very special in 2017.