Often times, the National Invitational Tournament offers up-and-coming teams a chance to end the season on a high note — or at least an opportunity to practice and play together a time or two more — and build toward its future. But for Indiana, might it only offer the chance for more disappointment?
Don’t get me wrong, Indiana is doing the right thing by playing in the NIT and hosting the event. In 2017, when Indiana accepted an NIT invitation but declined to host the event, Crimson Quarry lamented the decision. Kyle Swick noted that “[a]n NIT game might not be a big deal for a run-of-the-mill ticket holder,” but that Indiana could’ve provided an opportunity for many area fans to see the Hoosiers, especially with students on Spring Break. “Make tickets available at a low-cost for those that normally don’t have an opportunity — even donate large blocks to young kids or students that are still on campus,” Swick wrote. “That’s not to mention the giant slap in the face this is to local fans that still likely would’ve turned out well on short notice for this game. Indiana basketball is still Indiana basketball, even in the NIT. It’s still something to do.”
But the fact remains that it’s still different for the men’s program than it is for the women’s program. Last year, when the women were one win away from the NIT title, everyone understood that the women were on the verge of a major breakthrough for their program. We acknowledged, though, that the bar for success varies even within the same sport: “If Connecticut is winning the women’s NIT, something has gone terribly wrong. But if Indiana does? It means the program is moving in the right direction. And for a team that has been spinning its wheels in an almost Indiana football-esque fashion, that’s worthy of commemoration.”
So is there anything that could happen in the NIT that we should feel good about?
Let’s start here: there is no reason to expect this team to win the NIT.
They may have more talent than everyone else in the field, but if Indiana couldn’t be bothered to bring energy and effort in the first 34 minutes of a Big Ten Tournament game that was effectively a play-in game, how could we expect them to show up in the consolation bracket that you can’t play your way out of?
Sure, the Hoosiers will likely win on Tuesday night on talent alone. St. Francis is 261st in KenPom’s rankings and in three contests with KenPom Top-100 teams this season, the Red Flash got walloped by a combined score of 258-180. Add in a 37-point loss to lowly UCLA, and St. Francis has shown it cannot compete with any Power-5 program. Even if Indiana goes through the motions
But what comes next? A rematch with Arkansas — a reminder that two more points in that early season matchup might have been sufficient to be playing 167 miles away in Dayton on Tuesday — or a date with Providence, either of which could end with one more mind-boggling loss at Assembly Hall if the lethargic, uncaring, and bored Hoosiers we’ve seen far too often this season step onto the floor.
For those of you who are tired of my negative outlook on Indiana’s prospects in this event, I give you this: a win wouldn’t make much of a difference.
It would be fitting if the ending to this topsy-turvy Indiana basketball season, in which the club went on winning streaks and losing streaks and recorded some huge wins and pitiful losses, was a title in a tournament that doesn’t count. And the Hoosiers are playing well enough to do it. But what are the feelings that would accompany that meaningless title?
Langford, Morgan, Fitzner, and McRoberts will all still be gone, probably taking a fair amount of the momentum gained by the NIT success with them. The five-game run will serve as a reminder of how hot the Hoosiers had gotten and will make the 13-game stretch in the middle of the season, and the first 34 minutes in Chicago, sting that much more. And don’t forget the permanent reminder of this fantastic mess of a season that will hang from the rafters: four more numbers, “2019,” added to that unnecessary and meaningless “Men’s NIT CHAMPIONS” banner.
The only thing I’m hoping for out of the Hoosiers trip to the NIT is that Romeo plays. He shouldn’t risk anything for a worthless slew of games that no one who matters to his future will watch anyway. But I could do without the insanity that would surround any decision not to play, including, but not limited to, the absurd notions that he owes anything to anybody.
Aside from that, it’s just two more weeks worth of opportunities to get frustrated by this club and think about what could have been. And any way it shakes out — ranging from a terribly embarrassing loss to St. Francis at Assembly Hall to an NIT win that makes you wonder what they could’ve done in the Big Dance — the only possible outcome is disappointment.