Indiana basketball has a problem.
The problem is not whether or not the Hoosiers should be playing tonight’s opening-round NIT game at home.
The outrage and indignation over IU’s decision to send itself on the road is actually only symptomatic of the larger issue.
Had the Hoosiers stayed home this week and played in front of 10,000 empty seats, social media would be ablaze with pictures of a desolate arena and cries of despair regarding how far the once-mighty program has fallen.
Instead, Indiana opted for the road, a selection rife with its own bevy of criticisms — IU doesn’t want to be embarrassed by an empty home gym, doesn’t want the home crowd to get ugly in its displeasure with coach Tom Crean and is afraid to face the music while 11 other schools with students on spring break didn’t mind hosting a game.
“I think it was one of those things where we likely would’ve been criticized no matter what we did,” Indiana athletic director Fred Glass rightly discerned in an interview with Kent Sterling on 1430 AM Monday afternoon.
What Indiana basketball really has is a public relations problem.
The Hoosiers, as well as Glass, are in a lose-lose situation right now off the court that is every bit as telling as anything that happens on the court.
A week and a half ago, news broke that Indiana was pulling out of the 2017 2K Sports Classic tournament. The immediate reaction was to make a joke about how the schedule must be too difficult and which Division I “little sister of the poor” would replace the event on the IU schedule.
Indications are there was a scheduling conflict with another event Indiana was locked into that made doing both impossible, but nobody wants to hear that.
All the public sees is Indiana ducking another opportunity to challenge itself, and you know what they say — perception is reality.
Sometimes reality is also reality, and such was the case prior to the Hoosiers’ final home game of the regular season on Feb. 25 against Northwestern.
It was one of those little things that likely went largely unnoticed on the night, but it happened none the less.
Just like at every game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, there was a game ball sponsor. As usual, a presentation was made on the court pregame to David and Angela Shirley.
What wasn’t said was that David is the funeral director at Allen Funeral Home, celebrating its 100th year in business in Bloomington and attempting to celebrate the occasion by sponsoring IU basketball.
Shirley rightly had a sense of humor about the incident in an email: “Oh no! A funeral home? In the midst of a decidedly dismal season! We can’t have that. What if some unruly student whips up a disparaging chant, cheer or rant? What happens if some distinguished or intoxicated alum does the same? What kind of message are we sending to the IU community and specifically the players or Coach Crean? … Funny right?”
But also, pardon the pun, it’s another nail in the coffin for the current construct of the Indiana basketball program, which has lost all benefit of the doubt among most of its constituents.
As a matter of fact, it seems we’re just a coach calling in sick shy of history repeating itself in a complete and utter meltdown.
When the public is relentlessly critical of whatever direction the program steps, and the program is continually hiding behind the skirt of marketing or administration, there is a problem.
It isn’t in Indiana’s competitive interest to go on the road for the NIT. Winning the game, even at a one-third capacity Assembly Hall, would be much easier at home than on the road. It’s simply a decision driven by public relations.
It isn’t in IU’s best interest to not announce the name of the company that paid to be a game ball sponsor, but the decision not to do so was driven by — you guessed it — public relations.
But no amount of public relations can fix what is irreparably broken — a fanbase and a program that have fractured on and off the court.
Something has to change, and it’s the kind of change that only Glass can make.
It just comes with one caveat: Don’t make the wrong change, or you’ll have the same problem all over again.
A public relations problem.
Sports writer Jeremy Price can be reached at 812-331-4342 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JPPrice.