Indiana Hoosiers fans are not going to like this column.
Just want to make sure we put that out there right away.
The rabid fan base of IU basketball is starving for positivity. One trip past the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the last 16 seasons will do that.
So Hoosier Nation clings to hope, in whatever form it manifests itself. First, it was Tom Crean. He brought Indiana back to respectability, but not the glory days.
Then, it was Archie Miller. Just in his second season, it is much too early to make any judgment on the current head coach. But the restlessness of the fans is starting to stir, particularly after Monday’s pathetic display at Assembly Hall against Nebraska.
Most recently, it has been Romeo Langford. The savior. The 5-star talent choosing his home state team as the missing piece of the puzzle that would return the Hoosiers to the elite. The guy who will open the floodgates of 5-star players to Bloomington.
Yet here we are in the midst of an up-and-down season. Barring a complete collapse, IU should make the NCAA Tournament. That’s progress…I guess.
Hoosier fans have increasingly turned to recruiting to satisfy their cravings of hope for the program, seeking any type of positivity as the on-court product continues to disappoint year after year. Fans are glued to Twitter and recruiting sites, hoping to pick up on any indication that this 5-star player or that top-25 prospect is considering Bloomington.
In some ways, it’s all Hoosier Nation has.
Some fans believe that with Langford in the fold, Trayce Jackson-Davis committed and Keion Brooks Jr. a potential get, that things are close to returning to the “good ol’ days” in Bloomington.
The fundamental problem with that line of thinking is that many fans are of the opinion that once a few 5-stars choose IU, the Hoosiers will start locking up elite talent at the rate that Duke (19 5-star commits since 2014), Kentucky (21) and Kansas (10) does.
That’s just not realistic.
Indiana should not strive to be Duke. It should not try to be Kansas.
The Hoosiers need to be Villanova. They need to be Michigan.
In the last five recruiting cycles, Villanova has inked just three five-star prospects. In the last four years, the program has won 136 games and a pair of national titles.
Michigan under John Beilein entered this season with 98 victories the last four seasons, including a NCAA Tournament runner-up finish last year. The Wolverines look to be the most complete team in the Big Ten and will be a threat again come March.
Both Villanova and Michigan, and to a certain extent Michigan State over the years, have had success predominantly with players that stay with the program for multiple years. Even Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, a five-star prospect, played three years with the Wildcats.
Indiana has inked just a pair of 5-star players in the last five cycles – Langford and James Blackmon Jr. The Hoosiers have won 81 games in the last four full seasons, far worse than the elite of college hoops.
The problem with Indiana relying on the Romeo Langfords of the world is that there is no natural pipeline to fill the void left by players of that caliber. Duke will replace R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson with two top-10 players in the next cycle. Kentucky will reload its roster will more All-Americans and one-and-done players.
Meanwhile, next year the Hoosiers will be looking to fill the production void left by Langford. It will be counting on more youngsters like Jackson-Davis (and maybe Keion Jr.) to hit the ground running, who will then leave after a year or two tops. Then, the Hoosiers are counting on the next crop of talent to immediately step in, talent that isn’t Duke or Kentucky in quality OR quantity.
In short, Indiana men’s basketball cannot have sustained success using the Duke model.
That is why landing players like Robert Phinisee is more valuable to Coach Miller and Indiana, but underappreciated by fans and overshadowed by Langford. Phinisee will be a multi-year player in Bloomington at a need position at point guard. The continuity built with players in the mold of Phinisee outweigh the benefits of landing one truly elite 5-star talent every few cycles that is gone after a year.
This doesn’t mean Indiana shouldn’t chase 5-star players, particularly within its home state. Yet the idea that the Hoosiers can be a destination for the top players in the country on the regular is a delusion.
So IU fans. It is time to turn the page. You’re not Duke. You never will be. You’re not Kansas, so don’t focus on trying to out-recruit the Jayhawks.
Indiana returns to college basketball relevancy if the program (and its fan base) embraces what it can truly be, a team built around a roster with very good (but not great) recruits that will be committed to sticking around long term.
Don’t endlessly hope for the next Romeo Langford. Root to land the next Phinisee. The next Yogi Ferrell. The next Victor Oladipo.
Be Villanova. Be Michigan.
Do that, and maybe fans will have actual on-court success to be excited about instead of recruiting “victories.”
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