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Interview With Frenemies: Indiana

Because it’s always basketball season in the Hoosier State...

Kent State v Indiana Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I have a special guest in my own world to the blog this week as Ryan Phillips of The Big Lead and the Assembly Call Podcast joins to chat a bit about IU football, basketball, and even USC. Ryan is a Southern California native who spent part of his college years at USC before graduating from Indiana University. Back when print media was still a thing, Ryan and I went after the same job and even became friends after one of us got it. Thankfully, both of us have moved on to way bigger and better things - and it was Ryan who hosted me on my first night out ever in Bloomington.

Enough about that, let’s talk about Indiana ahead of Saturday’s game.

Indiana is 2-5 this season and winless in the Big Ten. Head coach Tom Allen’s buyout is a huge albatross for the program -and even athletic department. What are the feelings around the program and do you believe that he will be back for the 2024 season?

It’s been a rough one for Indiana football. The program had a ton of momentum coming off the 2020 COVID season. They went 6-2 (6-1 regular season), and if one or two breaks went their way they could have been in the conference title game. Tom Allen looked like he would be the coach for the next 20 years. They’ve won eight games in the three seasons since, with an 8-23 record overall. To say the honeymoon is over would be a massive understatement.

That 2020 season was fun, but looks like a mirage. Allen won Big Ten Coach of the Year and earned a massive extension that is worth roughly $35 million over seven years. While I think everyone would love to move on at this point, Allen would be owed $20 million and I’m just not sure Indiana can justify paying that for a football coach to go away. Unless a big money booster comes in to pick up that check — which might happen for basketball but not football — he’ll be back in 2024 and the program will continue to limp along.

Such is life as an Indiana football fan.

As you alluded to, IU is 2-20 in conference games since the 2020 season. What’s the long game for IU and its desire to remain competitive in the conference, especially with new powerhouses coming into play starting next season?

I think the increased money coming from the Big Ten will help but the conference just added four programs that rank far ahead of Indiana in quality. At some point you have to choose how much is too much to invest in a floundering program. At what point do you just funnel more money into elevating the basketball program?

I think the only hope Indiana truly has is to land an up-and-coming name and possibly catch lightning in the bottle. Unfortunately, someone who turns around a moribund program like Indiana would draw attention from bigger fish and likely wouldn’t be around long. Still, instead of trying to find their 20-year guy, they should be trying to find someone innovative who can do more with less.

The absolute ceiling for the program is probably going to a bowl every year and catching fire once every 15 years and threatening a spot in the conference title game.

You’re a USC football fan as much as an IU basketball fan. So, after 15 months or so of knowing that the Trojans are headed to the B1G, have you warmed to the idea of being in that conference?

As someone who attended USC and roots for the program, I’m happy it will be getting the kind of money is always deserved but didn’t get in the Pac-12. It’s the premiere program on the west coast — sorry, Oregon — and deserves to play with the big boys. I’m also thrilled my old friend Brian Bennett will be able to visit the Coliseum with me next year to watch his beloved Lions in the Southern California sunshine. That said, I hate conference expansion.

College sports have always been regional. The relationships, rivalries, recruiting, etc. are typically all localized. We’ve now completely blown all of that up to serve at the altar of money. I understand the financial realities of this, but it still makes no logical sense.

I’ve talked to the parents of players and recruits of multiple schools who used to be able to drive to all (or most) of their kids’ games. Now they won’t be able to do that. Players will have to fly clear across the country multiple times a season for road games, which will lead to more injuries and a further erosion of the student part of the student-athlete equation. I understand the realities of the current college model but I do think conference realignment has robbed us of some of what made college sports magical. It feels more like a junior NFL or NBA situation.

Here’s one example: every year, USC alternated playing either Cal or Stanford on the road. On the Thursday night before those road games, the campus emptied out, as did entire sections of LA, as everyone hopped on I-5 and caravanned up to the Bay Area for a weekend of craziness. This weeked is the final time that will happen because USC is headed to the Big Ten, and two schools within a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean will now be in the ATLANTIC Coast Conference. Make it make sense.

Deep down, it’s always basketball season in Indiana. Prized freshman recruit Mackenzie Mgbako had a brief run in with the law last weekend at a Bloomington Taco Bell. But aside from that, how are you feeling about the Hoosiers this season?

As long as no one else gets rowdy over not getting a Cruchwrap Supreme, the basketball team should be interesting this season. This might be the most purely talented squad Indiana has had since 2013. Transfer Kel-el Ware and freshman Mackenzie Mgbako (who will not face any legal action from his arrest) are both projected lottery picks and returning post Malik Reneau is poised for a big season. There’s returning leadership in Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway, plus some upside breakout candidates in Kaleb Banks and C.J. Gunn, while freshman point guard Gabe Cupps looks like the kind of guy the rest of the conference will hate for four years — think Aaron Craft.

The question will be how does all of this come together. Mike Woodson will be relying heavily on a bunch of guys who either haven’t played together before or haven’t played much. Johnson and Galloway are the only returners with big time experience at Indiana. I think the first two months could get ugly, but this should be a team that continues to get better as the season goes along. The hope is they don’t get buried early as they learn to play together.

Penn State did knock off Indiana twice last year, including in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals in Chicago. But, what about Saturday in Happy Valley? Any predictions?

My prediction for Indiana fans? Pain. We’re pretty used to that though.

Thank you Ryan for stepping in and handling those questions. Please read Ryan’s work on all sorts of things at The Big Lead and be sure to tune in during basketball season to The Assembly Call.