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For Indiana basketball, perception differs from reality

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This week’s NIT hosting debacle was yet another reminder of the divide between where the IU men’s basketball program sees itself and where it currently stands.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite classic movies is Cool Hand Luke. At one point in the movie, the exasperated prison warden, sick of Luke’s antics, says “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” It’s the most famous line of the movie, and recently, I’ve been thinking about it in connection to Indiana basketball.

The reason that Fred Glass gave for Indiana not hosting an NIT game yesterday was that the event would “devalue” Assembly Hall. This was the third excuse in less than 24 hours for not hosting an NIT game. The first never came from the school, but was mentioned on the ESPNU NIT Selection Show - that Assembly Hall was undergoing renovations and would not be available. Once IU immediately debunked this idea, the school said the students being on spring break as the reason for why the NIT game was moved. But this didn’t add up either, since 10 of the other 15 NIT hosts were on spring break but still decided to host games.

And then there was that “devalue” comment. Would an NIT game “devalue” a building in which an NIT banner from 1979 currently hangs? Does a game against Georgia Tech “devalue” Assembly Hall in the same way that the parade of sub-300 KenPom schools do when they come to Assembly Hall and collect paychecks? Or like a required conference home game against Rutgers does? And then there’s the matter of the women’s team - who also didn’t make the tournament - hosting a WNIT game at Assembly Hall on Thursday, despite the lack of students in town. What kind of message is that sending to the women’s team, that they’re willing to move the men’s game but don’t think a WNIT game is devaluing to the building? Overall, it’s a flimsy excuse that rivals when Glass said that Indiana “[doesn’t] play in the CBI” three years ago. Which reminds me: no major conference program has signed up to play in the CBI this year.

Ultimately, the NIT hosting debacle is yet another example of how Indiana basketball has a different perception of itself than what reality might indicate. Indiana’s lack of success this season has frustrated everyone. But sadly, an 18-15 record is not that abnormal for Indiana basketball in the past quarter-century. Regardless, the school still often acts like it is on the same playing field as schools that won titles much more recently than 1987. In the past 15 seasons, Indiana has missed the NCAA Tournament seven times. Even if you discount the first three years of the Crean tenure, that’s still four misses, in an era when the bubble is described as “historically weak” every year. And even though Bob Knight was making the tournament most years even towards the end, he didn’t make the second weekend for the last six years of his tenure. Remember losses to Colorado and Pepperdine? Let’s just say there’s been a lot of revisionist history about Knight - who’s still a grudge-holding bully - in the past 20 years since this SI article came out.

If you look at the overall results when IU makes the tourney, it’s not great for a top-tier program either. The Hoosiers have one Final Four and five Sweet 16s since 1994. This cannot cut it if Indiana still has the perception of itself as a blue-blood in college basketball. Indiana also fails to measure up to other blue-bloods in terms of coaching salaries either. Say what you want about Crean, but it’s tough for Indiana to seriously call itself a powerhouse and not pay whoever its coach is the market rate of a school like Kansas or Arizona. The resources are here in Bloomington to spend more, and Indiana University is still the flagship school in a basketball-crazed state. The interest, even in a down year, is still very much alive, so IU is in a unique situation where it can afford to open up its pocketbook in a way that other schools cannot.

Times are changing, and Indiana needs to accept the reality of its current status in the college basketball world. Instead, its current perception often has just resulted in a failure to communicate, like the NIT game demonstrated.