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IU Basketball: The Program’s National Irrelevance is Reaching Unparalleled Proportions

Yes, that is one hot, steamy, loaded headline.

But it isn’t hyperbole.

Unfortunate timing?  Yes, perhaps it is on the heels of one of the more feel good moments in the history of the Indiana program this weekend as legendary head coach Bob Knight returned to Assembly Hall at halftime on Saturday.

But that memorable moment was surrounded by two halves of entirely forgettable IU basketball.

And while Knight’s return on Saturday healed a lot of wounds, it should not be confused in any way with helping the current product that IU is putting on the court.

The loss on Saturday to Purdue was a performance that wasn’t worthy of Indiana’s rich history, while quite familiar in its recent past.

And it was a home loss against a mediocre team that Indiana simply could not afford for a multitude of reasons.

We warned you about all of the reasons why that game against Purdue fell into the “must win” category.  And now, right or wrong, the questions are shifting from the state of a season — to the state of a program.

To understand the significance of this 2019-20 IU basketball season, you first have to frame things in the larger historical context.

It has been nearly fifty years since Indiana missed the NCAA Tournament for four straight seasons.  With IU now on a four game losing streak after a sixth straight loss to rival Purdue, missing a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament is appearing to be much more likely than not.

And here is something useful to keep in mind.

Fifty years ago, you either won the Big Ten, or you stayed home.  There was no 68-team participation trophy of a tournament that you really don’t even have to be all that good to make like there is today.

Lou Watson’s 1970-71 Hoosiers, led by super sophomore George McGinnis were every bit of an NCAA Tournament caliber team by today’s standards.  That squad finished the season 17-7 overall, 9-5 in the Big Ten, and captured fourth place in the league.  Extrapolated out to today’s 31 game season with 20 Big Ten contests, the winning percentages of that Hoosier squad translate to a 22-9 overall record with a 13-7 league mark.

You think most folks would take a season like that right now?

The 1971 team was one that the fans enjoyed watching, and IU had enough success to feel good about the program, even if there was no postseason.

That 1971 squad was the fourth straight IU team to miss the NCAA, and a fifth missed the next year when Bob Knight’s first Hoosier team went 17-8 overall, 9-5 in the Big Ten, and finished in third place in the league.  Again, yet another fairly obvious NCAA Tournament team by today’s standards.

In fact, if you use at least a fourth place conference finish as the standard for comparing historic teams to today, Indiana likely wouldn’t have missed today’s NCAA Tournament for four straight years going all the way back to Everett Dean’s 1931 to 1934 squads.

Here is another way to look at it.  From a Big Ten perspective, Indiana hasn’t gone four straight years without a season over .500 in league play since 1918.  But that now appears likely to happen again here more than 100 years later.

The frustration that is fermenting right now isn’t based just on a recent drought in success.  It is frustration in context.  This is quite simply one of the worst stretches the program has ever seen.

Even Watson’s miserable 1968 and 1969 seasons were followed by progress in 1971 after he missed the 1970 season to recover from surgery.  With Steve Downing, Joby Wright, John Ritter and others in the program, Watson left Knight with plenty of talent to work with and a respectable 1971 season to build on.

During Dean’s challenging years in the ’30s, there was at least progress as IU moved up a spot in the Big Ten standings each year from 1932 until he won the league crown in 1936.

Although he struggled after a 2002 national championship game appearance, Mike Davis managed to avoid a third straight miss of the NCAA Tournament with a fourth place finish in the Big Ten in his final season at IU in 2006.

And after digging his way out of the Kelvin Sampson debacle, Tom Crean made the NCAA Tournament four out of his last six years and never missed the event for back-to-back seasons.

Maybe Crean would have continued to struggle if he had not been fired.  Everything seemed to be pointing in that direction, and this certainly should not be read as a suggestion that the nine year IU head coach should have been retained.  Crean still owns some of the current state of the program, although that responsibility fades with each passing day.

The point here is not to lay blame but instead to talk about the facts.

This Indiana program that has transitioned from Crean to Archie Miller over the last four seasons is experiencing one of, if not the worst stretches of basketball that the program has seen in the lifetime of just about anyone who follows it.

“When I graduated in 1994, there wasn’t a single player in the Coach Knight era that didn’t win a Big Ten championship or a national championship,” former IU player Todd Leary told me today on Indiana Sports Beat.  “And now there might be four years in a row where they don’t even make the tournament.”

As we have established, this is about more than just the Coach Knight era.  What Indiana is experiencing right now is a level of mediocrity that is arguably worse than any era of the program — and with no way out in sight.

What is making this season particularly painful to suffer through is that there are no real tangible signs of progress.

Why has the half court offense been so ineffective for so long?

Where is the transition game that is supposed to be the foundation of the offensive attack?

Why is the defense so inconsistent?

Why does it seem like we have been questioning this team’s effort, toughness and togetherness for far, far too long?

Where. Is. The. Progress?

Even if they cannot make a shot, why can’t Miller at a minimum get through to these players and get them to consistently play hard?  Not just their idea of playing hard, but at least as hard as most everyone else in the league.  Hard enough to win at times when that effort is the only thing you really have going for you.

Is the talent level at Indiana really that much lower than Rutgers?  Penn State?  Or do those teams simply play harder?

Early in the season there were markers of progress.  There was a burgeoning identity with offensive rebounds and free throws.  That has all dissipated, and now, this team looks and feels just like last year’s squad.  And the one before that.

Looking forward to next season, nine of the eleven scholarship players are slated to return.  Is that even a good thing?  None of the currently signed true freshman on that team are expected to be significant day one contributors.

What exactly is going to change?

If we are sitting here a year from now asking the same questions, then what?  Five straight years with no NCAA Tournament?

Indiana fans are notoriously impatient, but in the context of the program’s history, impatience is reasonable right now.  Tough questions are reasonable.  Holding the program to a higher standard is reasonable.

None of this is a call for Miller’s job, but those calls will keep growing louder if it continues to become apparent that nothing is changing here.

The fringe elements are slowly but surely growing into a mob, pitchforks and all.  And at some point, of course, that angry mob can be right.

While this is not a call for change, it is a call for answers.  And after nearly three full years of uninspiring stuck in the mud neutral under Miller, the questions that people seem to want to have answered are fairly simple.

What is this product we are watching?

When are we going to see signs of progress?

What the hell is going on here?

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