It is the consequence of a season of under-achievement and injuries, and it leaves the No. 3 seed Hoosiers (18-15) set to face No. 6 Georgia Tech (17-15) Tuesday night in Atlanta in a Region 1 opener.
Why isn’t IU hosting the game given it’s the better seed?
IU officials declined the chance because students would be gone for spring break, and attendance would be abysmal. They would host the next round if the Hoosiers advance. They would face the Wednesday winner between No. 2 seed Georgia (19-14) and No. 7 Belmont (22-6).
Of course, given this is the NIT, attendance would still be poor, with or without students, but IU can worry about that later.
For those seeking drama, consider Houston (21-10) and coach Kelvin Sampson also are in the NIT field, but in Region 2. Both teams would have to win at least three games to meet.
Sampson’s two-year run as IU’s coach ended in a NCAA-sanctioned mess in 2008 that kept him out of the college coaching ranks for six seasons and led to three miserable Hoosier years before coach Tom Crean turned it around.
Anyway, IU players insist they are “honored” to participate because, center Thomas Bryant said, “We want to keep playing with each other. We don’t want to stop playing anytime soon.”
Or, as guard Robert Johnson put it, “At the end of the day, we put ourselves in this position, so we’ll be honored to play in anything.”
Indiana’s performance will show if there is passion behind the words. Guard Josh Newkirk said the Hoosiers won’t go through the motions.
“We want to play,” he said. “We want to continue to play. We have to have a positive attitude. Be ready for whatever is next.”
The Hoosiers will play amid relentless speculation about Crean’s job status and whether he will remain a Hoosier or move on, either by his choice (he’s reportedly a leading candidate for the open Missouri job, although he’s said he’s focused on the Hoosiers) or by athletic director Fred Glass (who has stayed silent).
More telling is the lack of a contract extension. Crean’s current deal — which pays him $3.2 annually — ends after the 2019-20 season. That’s three more years, and coaches always want at least five for recruiting purposes. That way they can tell high school freshmen they will be the coach when they get to campus.
Regardless, players said the speculation isn’t a distraction.
“You can’t let those things weigh in on you,” forward Juwan Morgan said. “It’s like what Coach Crean tells us, he has big shoulders to take those things so we don’t have to.”
Despite the fact he’s produced two outright Big Ten titles and three Sweet 16 appearances in the last six seasons, plus won a Big Ten coach-of-the-year award, plus graduates players without a hint of NCAA scandal, fan criticism is a yearly occurrence for Crean.
The Hoosiers remain outside the elite performance level — such as making Final Fours and winning national championships — that fellow tradition-rich programs such as North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Duke consistently deliver.
It doesn’t help that this is the second time in the last four seasons IU hasn’t made the NCAA tourney, or that key veterans such as Bryant, James Blackmon and Robert Johnson haven’t played to expectations.
Criticism hit the Internet video world after Friday’s Big Ten tourney loss to Wisconsin (the Badgers have won 17 of the last 19 meetings with the Hoosiers, another source of fan irritation), when a man wearing a Maryland shirt shouted at Crean that, “You don’t know how to coach. You ruined the program!”
Crean avoided a confrontation.
IU players have their coach’s back.
“Coach Crean is my guy,” Bryant said. “I’m sticking by him through anything. We know he won’t give up on us, and he knows we won’t give up on him.”
Added freshman center De’Ron Davis: “He’s the coach I came to play for. He’s the coach to do the job.”
UP NEXT: Indiana at Georgia Tech, NIT
TIPOFF: 9 p.m., Tuesday
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