Commentary: Indiana is back…but with still a long way to go

Indiana is back!

If you have followed college basketball even tangentially this season, you have heard this refrain. It was being whispered as a possibility even before the Kentucky game, and it’s been stated with certainty ever since that Kentucky upset was followed by another one over Ohio State.

Just this week, IU cracked the top 10 in both polls, the team is profiled in Sports Illustrated, Dana O’Neill of ESPN wrote a wonderful profile of Cody Zeller, and Tom Crean is scheduled to make an appearance today on Pardon The Interruption.

Indeed, in terms of national relevancy, Indiana is back!

christian-watford

Image credit: Joe Eke

If you know me, if you listen to The Assembly Call, if you follow my constant Hoosier tweets, you know that no one is more overjoyed about Indiana’s 15-1 start than I am. I’m already on record saying that this year’s squad is well on its way to joining the ’92-’93 Hoosiers and the ’01-’02 Hoosiers as my personal favorite IU teams of all time (for context, I was born in 1981). That is why I hesitate to say what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway.

Yes, the Hoosiers are back, but even as we get caught up in the excitement of #TheMovement happening one year early, let’s not lose sight of just far this program still needs to go to really, truly, fully be back. Because for Hoosier fans who can still remember attending games during the Knight Era and older, “back” is a relative term. And its up to those of us who remember to pass this on to those who don’t, because while our place in the college basketball world has changed over the last decade the standard, the expectations have not.

Before I go any further, don’t start calling me some kind of Negative Nancy here, focusing on a negative in the midst of overwhelming positives. My purpose in writing this to post is not to be negative. At all. What is there to be negative about right now as it relates to IU basketball?

Rather, my point is to make sure than in the excitement about the special season unfolding right now in Bloomington that we do not forget two very important points:

  • Just how far IU basketball had fallen before this season.
  • Just how consistently great the expectations and accomplishments once were for this proud program.

So let’s take a quick look at both before I tie everything together.

How Far IU Fell

Here are a few facts about the recent history of IU basketball, before this season started:

  • Indiana has not reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2003.
  • Indiana has not reached the NCAA Tournament at all since 2008.
  • Indiana has not finished in first place in the Big Ten since 2002.
  • Indiana has not won an outright Big Ten championship since 1993.
  • Indiana went 28-66 overall the last three seasons.
  • Indiana went 8-46 in the Big Ten over the last three seasons.
  • The last time we beat Purdue was February 19th, 2008

I could go on and on, but you get the idea; and you probably are wondering why I’m wasting time rehashing all of this awfulness when we seem to have turned a page and moved past it.

We’ll get to that in a moment.

Before do though, a quick recap of the good stuff.

How Great IU Was

  • Indiana has won five national championships.
  • Indiana has made the Elite 8 11 times and the Final 4 eight times.
  • Before the 2004 NCAA Tournament, Indiana made 18 straight tourney appearances
  • Between 1972 and 2008, Indiana played postseason basketball every season but two.
  • Indiana has won 20 Big Ten championships.
  • For the better part of its existence, Indiana has been renowned for being a successful basketball program that did not compromise recruiting integrity or academic excellence to win.

As you can see, and already knew, there is quite a large contrast from the first bulleted list to this second list. The reason why IU’s fall from grace seemed so epic is because it was so epic. Yes, there had been a slow erosion ever since the 1993 season ended, but the bottom totally fell out in 2008, followed by the crater that was the next three seasons, and only now have we finally started to show signs of digging out from underneath the rubble to resemble something like what we once were.

Already this year’s Hoosiers have:

  • Beaten then-#1 Kentucky
  • Beaten then-#2 Ohio State
  • Made Assembly Hall a house of horrors again for opponents
  • Made the top 25
  • Made the top 10
  • Re-entered the national discussion as a likely tournament team
  • Secured a top 5 recruiting class for next year

There are a lot of good things happening in Bloomington right now, which is why the chants of Indiana is back! can be heard ringing throughout the nation, and with such good reason, from pretty much everyone expect boobs like the Doug Gottliebs of the world.

Yes, Indiana is back, but…

Okay, now that I’ve fully presented the context, allow me to make my point, which is really a directive to IU fans – especially myself: let’s not get too carried away proclaiming Indiana “back” and let’s not compromise at any point on our way back up the mountain, all the while enjoying every single step on the way up, especially the stuff we used to take for granted.

I don’t like the phrase Indiana is back because implicit in it, at least to me, is an inherent belittling of the history and tradition of this proud program. Yes, Indiana is back on the national radar screen, and it’s been a long time so that is definitely worth celebrating, but since when has that alone been satisfactory?

For Indiana to be back, Purdue needs to start suffering regular losses at our hands again. Selection Sunday needs to occur with Indiana’s name a given only what top 4 seed as the question mark. Big Ten championships need to be awarded with Indiana playing a major hand in their determination…and the Hoosiers taking them home at least semi-regularly. Opening weekend tournament losses need to be a cause of disappointment not for satisfaction.

When all of those things, and more, are happening on an annual basis, then Indiana will be back.

You may be thinking, well duh! Jerod, no one is saying that just because Indiana is 15-1 that Tom Crean’s rebuilding job is complete! Stop parsing words and creating semantics-based straw man arguments!

There is a level of truth in such an accusation; I admit it, even as I continue typing. But there is also a very good reason why I’m positing such an argument anyway, all while fully understanding its shortcomings: because I think taking a conservative, humble approach to Indiana’s resurgence makes it so much more worthwhile, enjoyable, and even sustainable.

Remember how you felt when Indiana beat Illinois at home last year? Sure, Hoosier Nation got ripped nationally for storming the court, but that was a real, cathartic outpouring of excitement after we finally beat a ranked team.

Remember how you felt when Indiana beat Kentucky this year? It is among the most jubilant sports moments I’ve ever experienced…and it was a regular season college basketball game in December.

Just this year, the road win over Evansville was thoroughly satisfying. The home win over Butler felt like a huge step (and was). Winning at NC State was cause for celebration. Beating Penn State in Happy Valley was ugly but still another big step.

The reason why these wins individually and collectively have had such meaning is because no one associated with the program could take them for granted anymore. Every win was the next step up the mountain, and every step was so exciting and necessary and satisfying in its own right.

As a sports fan, there is a big difference between the relief you feel from winning a game you are “supposed” to win and the unexpected, hard-earned jolt you get from winning a game you are not supposed to win yet you cheer for and root for and desperately hold onto optimism during anyway. After three years of barely even competing at a Big Ten level, a fan base becomes conditioned to expect the worst in every situation. It’s a horrible feeling. But the flip side, the sliver lining, is that the elation of winning can often be that much better because of it.

Actually, maybe “better” isn’t the right word. Something tells me fans of ’76 Hoosiers were pretty damn satisfied every time those Hoosiers won. Dominance can be fun too – and that’s the ultimate goal again.

For longtime fans of Indiana basketball, I do believe that the burden of unyielding expectation sapped some of the joy out of the final Knight years and really every other year since 1993 besides that magical run in ’02. We had a standard to live up to, and we just have not lived up to it much since ’93. That can make for a joyless fan experience, even when you’re winning a lot more games than you’re losing, and especially when you are losing a lot more games than you are winning.

It’s important, however, to not change the standard for excellence. In fact, it’s having that standard so high that makes the journey back towards it after the fall so rewarding.

Here is the good news: we don’t have much more time, if we even have any at all, of going into any games not expecting victory. Consider tonight’s matchup against Minnesota. This is a game Indiana is supposed to win. Getting that victory will bring some sense of satisfaction, especially if certain areas of improvement are seen, but not anywhere near the devastation that losing would bring. Yet just last year, IU fans were elated to beat Minnesota at home.

Therein lies the difference a year can make, and it’s a great feeling for any Hoosier fan. But it doesn’t mean that Indiana is back. Not yet. We’re going to get there. And I think we’re going to stay there for a while, which means that there will only be one full journey up to experience. So let’s experience it.

What IU fans are experiencing this season, because of what we’ve been though, is unique. It’s fun. It’s exhilarating. We know where we were, we know where we want to be, and it’s one hell of a ride in between.

But if we forget either of the end points, or rush to claim the journey complete, we waste an experience that, while we hopefully never have again, is one that we’ll also never forget.

So to all IU fans, and really to myself as well, I just want to be one subtle voice in the midst of all the happiness and hysteria that is a reminder of the big picture. And the big picture is that in some ways Indiana is back all right, but don’t forget how far we still have to go. It’ll make the journey there that much more rewarding.

**********

Join us tonight and after every IU game for The Assembly Call IU Postgame Show.



About Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.

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