The fascinating part about Georgia Tech beating Indiana in the NIT on Tuesday wasn’t that Tech won. The Yellow Jackets had already beaten half-dozen teams — VCU, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame and Syracuse — better than the Hoosiers, and all except the VCU game was staged at McCamish Pavilion.
The fascinating part: Indiana chose to play this game at McCamish Pavilion.
Tech was one of the final at-large selections — a No. 6 seed — in the 32-team NIT field. Indiana was a No. 3 seed. The higher seed gets the honor of hosting. IU declined because its students were on spring break. I am not making this up.
There was a time when, as it pertained to basketball, IU didn’t care what the world thought of it. It kept and coddled and lionized the ogre Bobby Knight. When finally Myles Brand fired Knight, many Hoosier fans swore never to embrace his successor. Some didn’t. Mike Davis took Indiana to the NCAA title game in 2002. By 2006, he was gone to UAB.
To replace Davis, Indiana hired Kelvin Sampson, who’d landed Oklahoma — which also reached the 2002 Final Four, staged in the Georgia Dome, which is about to be razed — on NCAA probation. Lo and behold, Sampson landed Indiana on probation for the same offense, meaning impermissible phone calls to recruits. (For the record, the NCAA is headquartered in Indianapolis, 50 miles from Bloomington.)
To replace Sampson, Indiana hired Tom Crean, who’d led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four when Dwyane Wade tripled-doubled No. 1 Kentucky in a regional final. Crean seemed a real fit: He’s a Midwesterner (from Michigan); he’d worked under Jud Heathcote and Tom Izzo at Michigan State; he’d won at Marquette; he’d married into the famous Harbaugh clan, and he’s considered a nice guy. (His media sessions can go on forever; in that sense, he’s a younger Jim Calhoun.)
Owing partly if not mostly to the deep-dish NCAA sanctions stemming from Sampson, Crean’s first three seasons in Bloomington were awful — 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20. Two games against the best collegiate team of this decade changed those dire dynamics. On Dec. 10, 2011, Indiana beat Kentucky and Anthony Davis on Christian Watford’s 3-pointer. It would be the Wildcats’ only regular-season loss. In the South Regional semifinals at the Georgia Dome, Indiana again gave the Big Blue a run, succumbing 102-90 in the most breathtaking game of that Big Dance.
Indiana opened the next season ranked No. 1. Its top players: Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Yogi Ferrell and Watford. The Hoosiers entered the NCAA tournament seeded No. 1 in the East. They lost in a wretched display to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, the famous Orange zone reducing sleek IU to one no-chance jump shot after another. Almost a year to the day after stacking 90 points on champion-to-be Kentucky, Indiana managed 50 against Syracuse.
Indiana missed the 2014 NCAA tournament. It made it in 2015 and was beaten in Round 1 by Wichita State; those Hoosiers lost 10 of their final 15 games. Last season saw IU beat Kentucky in the Round of 32, which wasn’t a major upset: It was a 4-versus-5 game. The Hoosiers then slammed into North Carolina in the Sweet 16, losing 101-86.
On that Good Friday in Philadelphia, all the gripes about Crean bubbled to the surface: That his teams could score but played not one lick of defense; that his teams were therefore doomed to go only so far; that his program, after eight years of trying and lots of talk, hadn’t gotten as far as Davis, who’s now coaching Texas Southern, took IU in his second season.
This season started nicely for the Hoosiers. They beat Kansas in the opener, beat North Carolina shortly thereafter. Both those teams are No. 1 NCAA seeds. Indiana missed the field of 68, and not by a hair. Sandwiched between those momentous victories was a loss to Fort Wayne. On Jan. 21, the Hoosiers defeated Michigan State to rise to 14-6. With the season-ending loss to Tech, they finished 18-16.
Crean’s contract has three years to run. His son is about to enroll at IU to play baseball. It’s believed he feels no urge to leave, though he’d be an attractive candidate at Missouri and maybe North Carolina State. It’s also believed Indiana feels no compunction to dump him, though the school’s decision to give up a home game beggared belief.
Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but college basketball is a home-team sport. Know how many of Tech’s 18 victories came away from the Flats? Two. (At VCU in OT in December, at N.C. State in January.) Know how many of Indiana’s 18 victories came on opponent’s courts? Also two. (At Penn State, at Ohio State. But not at Fort Wayne.) By punting on a chance to play host, the Hoosiers essentially said, “We don’t really care if we lose.” Sure enough …
The outcry in Indiana was predictably heated. Wrote Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star: “Indiana is giving up an NIT home game because it’s scared – no, terrified – of ESPN’s cameras showing empty seats and its microphones picking up apathy or even anger. Indiana is scared of going on national television and being humiliated.”
This led Doyel to ask the next question: “If the IU fan base is this done with coach Tom Crean’s basketball program, so done that the school is willingly sacrificing revenue by sending its bad road team onto the road, how can Tom Crean continue to stay?”
Indiana’s Assembly Hall is a storied building. This not just in: Hoosiers like basketball. They just aren’t crazy about the kind of basketball Crean is handing them. For a Feb. 12 game against Michigan — the same Michigan that would win the Big Ten tournament — Doyel wrote that IU’s arena was 75 percent full. Here’s what IU athletic director told Doyel about the decision not to play the NIT opener at home:
“In my view it wasn’t driven by keeping away the boo birds or anything like that. It was driven by spring break and the fact that the student body won’t be here and the rest of Bloomington will be a ghost town, too.”
We note again: Bloomington, 50 miles from Indy; the Hoosier State, normally a basketball mecca. And Indiana, winner of five NCAA titles, was so worried about empty seats it decided to go play (and lose) in Atlanta. Forget the many Knight excesses and the post-Sampson years. For proud IU, this marks a new new low.
Ah, well. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, at least in an apartment building. (Michael Jordan, the star of the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials at Assembly Hall, tried recently to say something along those lines, I do believe.) Georgia Tech took its gift and ran with it. Josh Pastner bought up student tickets and was rewarded with a nice-by-NIT-standards home crowd. (“Money well spent,” he said.)
His offensively challenged team scored 75 points — its most against a Division I opponent since the Jan. 25 upset of Florida State; did we mention that Crean’s teams can’t guard anybody? — and won by 12. There’s a chance they’ll play Georgia in Athens next, and that would mark a chance to show how far this team has come. (Tech lost to the Bulldogs by 17 on Dec. 20.)
This unusual game was yet another indication of how quickly things change. Not so long ago, Crean was coaching the nation’s No. 1 team. Not so long ago, Pastner was looking for a way out of Memphis. On Tuesday, Pastner’s new team offered another reason why Indiana needs to find itself a new coach.