Let's keep this simple in the wake of the Indiana-Kentucky mutual basketball debacle and reports IU-Louisville already is DOA:
IU should set up a long-term home-and-home series with Louisville, ASAP.
Kansas is nice, but the Hoosiers can do better than nice.
Remember Indiana-Connecticut? That was a four-game deal that ran from 2004 to 2008. It stirred short-term interest, long-term irrelevance. More than likely, any kind of agreement with Kansas would be similar.
Instead, how about coming as close as possible to duplicating the rivalry and tradition associated with Kentucky.
Louisville is closer geographically to IU than UK. It has a similarly impressive basketball tradition and, under coach Rick Pitino, lots of marquee value that translates well for a TV contract.
Plus, Pitino WANTS to play the Hoosiers. We can't emphasize that enough. None of the drama associated with Kentucky coach John Calipari (we'll get to his philosophy on the Wildcats and “gold-standard” programs in a moment) would apply with the Cardinals. You get a quality opponent whose fierce full-pressure style would serve as great NCAA tourney preparation.
Don't forget Louisville should be very good next season. It returns three starters, including Peyton Silva, one of the nation's top point guards, and defensive-minded center Gorgui Dieng from a 30-10 Final Four team, plus brings in quality George Mason transfer Luke Hancock. The Cardinals project as the nation's No. 3 team behind Indiana and Kentucky.
A few weeks ago, Hoosier coach Tom Crean said negotiations to play Louisville were nowhere, but that was before the Kentucky series was stopped.
Now, it's time to have a serious discussion.
Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal's Eric Crawford that he has called IU and would be willing to play at Bloomington next year, something Calipari apparently never wants to do again.
This would be a national event. It could be the best game of the upcoming regular season, generating serious buzz.
The biggest fear would be that nothing gets done and IU ends up replacing Kentucky with, heaven forbid, the equivalent of Kentucky State.
Guess what? It might happen. Pitino told Crawford on Tuesday that Indiana has shot down playing next season and added, “I think they're going with a buy game at home to fill that spot.”
For clarity, a “buy game” is when you pay a lousy team $50,000 (give or take) to play at your home arena and get hammered.
In other words, fear lives.
Of course, it's still possible that the IU-Kentucky series isn't really over, that this is just posturing and both sides will find common sense along with common ground.
That leads back to Calipari, who used his website to explain his views on scheduling and the Kentucky program.
To paraphrase, he said the Wildcats are a “non-traditional program” because they recruit one-and-done guys and face constant lineup turnover. He said, “The 25-year model doesn't work anymore. It is done and blown up. We are going by our own model now; the gold standard. Everyone has to accept that.”
A cynic might question Kentucky being the gold standard of modern college basketball, but Calipari's track record of signing standouts who leave early for NBA riches is well documented. Nobody signs more top-10 prep players. Nobody loses more to the pros.
In 2010, five UK players were drafted in the NBA's first round. In 2011, guard Brandon Knight bolted after his freshman year. Last month five Wildcats decided to leave early for NBA opportunity.
Calipari said three factors are paramount for his program –- money, fans and preparing young players for a national title run. He wants neutral sites for key non-conference games because they generate more money (he's right), provide more ticket opportunity for UK fans who don't have Rupp Arena season tickets (he's right again) and better preparation for the NCAA tourney (to quote Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend”).
We suggest that Kentucky's national title came in part because of the benefit of playing at Assembly Hall. Sure, the Wildcats lost 73-72 on Christian Watford's dramatic buzzer-beating three-pointer, but that defeat steeled them like nothing else could have.
Sure, every team aspires to an unbeaten national title, something that hasn't happened since IU did it in 1976. But to handle that kind of postseason pressure takes a special kind of toughness. Playing games in Assembly Hall can certainly toughen you up, win or lose.
Calipari took a different approach. He said, “This is a players-first program and you cannot put a young team into situations that is not fair to the players.” He added that the Wildcats, “will no longer have multiple contracts of longer than two years.”
Finally, some believe that losing at Assembly Hall scared Calipari and that he wants no part of the Hoosiers, even in Rupp Arena. Kentucky has a 52-game home winning streak. IU would have played at Rupp Arena next season and likely would have been favored to win there.
Calipari denied he was scared to play any team.
“How can anybody say that I want to back away from challenges? It has nothing to do with that. I'll play teams on I-64. We'll close it down. But this program is not traditional. This program is in a position that we must protect as we march forward to try to grow it to another level.”
In other words, somebody is scared. All we know is, it's not Rick Pitino.