When the Indiana Hoosiers and Kentucky Wildcats agreed to disagree and ended their long-running series last week over a venue dispute, I think most fans concluded that this would be a short-term parting. But is that really the case?
Although none of us will likely ever know exactly why the plug was pulled, there certainly seemed to be room for compromise. But for some reason, about which we can only speculate, compromise was impossible. Rob Dauster at NBC Sports has been leading the nation in articles bemoaning the loss of this series, and he raises a point that deserves some inquiry:
Kentucky and Indiana had the best finish of the 2011-2012 season in the best environment of the year (a game that just so happened to take place in December) before taking part in the 2012 tournament’s most entertaining game.
And therein lies the shame.
College basketball is dangerously close to becoming a three-week sport. The regular season already borderlines on meaningless for the majority of casual fans. Few pay attention to the games that are played in November or December. More start paying attention once football ends in early February.
So, because the UK-IU series ended, college basketball is irreparably harmed? Seriously? What about the Kentucky game against the Duke Blue Devils next year? Think that might draw a bit of attention? What about the annual game with the Louisville Cardinals where both figure to be highly ranked next year, and only 9 months removed from a Final Four game?
Let's get one thing straight. The loss of this game is not an end to college basketball. Something just as good will spring up in it's place, eventually. Whatever the reason for Indiana's insistence that it absolutely would not play UK except home and home, it really doesn't matter that much. This sort of hyperbole, that Calipari and Crean had a duty to college basketball isn't just unconvincing, it's a touch dishonest, or at least naive. He isn't the only one making this point, but just because others repeat an unreasonable position doesn't make it reasonable.
Anthony Schoettle writing for the Indianapolis Business Journal has a take I have not seen get much play, but makes some sense and certainly deserves further exposition:
It’s noble that IU Athletic Director Fred Glass and Coach Tom Crean want to keep the game on campus and accessible to the students. But the truth is that UK’s getting any more exposure in the Indianapolis market—where more than a few of their best recruits have come from over the years—is no good for IU.
Kentucky wants to play to a wider audience at Lucas Oil Stadium. IU wants the games played in Bloomington and Lexington.
So IU did what it felt was necessary to get a leg up in this intensified recruiting war. Strategically smart perhaps, but at what cost? Now, instead of not having a game on campus for a few thousand students to enjoy live, what do we have? No game. No tradition. No enjoyment for anyone. That’s the dictionary definition of lose-lose. Or maybe lose-lose-lose. I’ve lost count.
Unlike Dauster's point, this one has some logic to it. Calipari is recruiting nationally, and Indiana is a prime territory for UK to draw talent from. Every top recruit UK draws to Lexington hurts Crean's program. Allowing UK maximum exposure in Indiana, which an off-campus game in Indianapolis absolutely does, is definitely a negative for IU. With due respect to Tom Crean, and I do respect him very much, he is not the recruiter Calipari is. To be completely fair, that's true of every other college basketball coach in America as well.
Calipari's offer of playing both games in Lucas Oil Stadium has been pointed to as proof that recruiting was a big factor, and that does make some sense. How big a factor is unknown, but it could be argued that Crean and Glass saw more to fear in a neutral-site series than is obvious to the casual observer.
This article in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazzette spreads the blame around, or so they say, but their fingers are more strongly pointed at IU:
If it’s what it smells like, though – a baldly transparent ploy to force Kentucky’s hand – it’s risky to the point of being foolish, so we’re back to Square One. Dumb vs. Dumber. Empty posturing over what’s best for both college hoops and the fan bases of both schools. A game of chicken, or at least chickens.
The shame in all of this is it could be easily enough resolved, if both schools were willing. But Indiana has backed Kentucky into a corner, and Kentucky has dug in its heels. And college basketball is the poorer for it.
Assuming that they are on to something here, the question becomes, "Why would IU become so inflexible?" After all, we have played almost as many games at neutral sites as at home sites over the years, so why would moving the game to neutral sites, even for a couple of years, be so unpalatable to IU that they would simply say no and hang up the phone, leaking the news that they had decided to end the series before even informing UK?
I can only conclude that IU had taken a decision that the only acceptable outcome was never moving the series to a neutral arena for any length of time. That decision, if indeed it was calculated and not due mainly to just plain stubbornness or a fear of a fan backlash, seems strangely diffident to me for a program that purports to be on the rebound. The fact that a compromise was never even offered by IU, at least that anyone knows about, seems to indicate that they couldn't come up with a scenario in which IU benefited other than home and home.
Which leads me to wonder -- will the series ever be renewed while Calipari and Crean are coaches at the respective schools? If it will never be acceptable to IU to play at neutral, and never be acceptable for UK to play in Bloomington, what hope do we have of a restart? I can see none until the administrations change, and I can't imagine a scenario in which either department comes off their current position.
So while I was optimistic, originally, about a short hiatus, that optimism has been considerably eroded upon reflection. Unlike Dauster, I am confident that the loss of the series doesn't mean grave harm to college basketball, and I'm sure it will be replaced by other marquee games of equal interest nationally, if not locally.
However, I am not at all sanguine, absent a change in the leadership of one or both of the programs, that there is any hope for renewal.