by Kent Sterling
The Indiana Pacers have fortified its roster for a run toward a championship, and the Indiana Hoosiers have unraveled on and off the floor to become a challenger for the bottom spot in the Big Ten.
One year ago, the Hoosiers hoped to win a sixth NCAA championship, while the Pacers would have been pleased to win a single playoff series.
The Pacers play the team with the worst record in the NBA tonight in a reminder of what might have been if the trade for the Bucks O.J. Mayo had gone through, while the Hoosiers play #20 Iowa in the game that was postponed because a 50-pound piece of metal fell from near the ceiling into the seats.
The Pacers have recently added former #2 overall pick Evan Turner, power forward Lavoy Allen, and former all-star Andrew Bynum, while the Hoosiers have recently reinstated Hanner Mosquera-Perea after his suspension for OWI on Valentine’s Day morning.
With only 26 games left in the regular season, the Pacers have a two-game advantage in their quest to post the best regular season record in the NBA. The Hoosiers are one game into a five-game gauntlet of opponents to wrap the regular season. All five are in the top six of the Big Ten’s standings, and all will likely be participants in next month’s NCAA Tournament.
After the Hoosiers play Iowa tonight, they host Ohio State on Sunday and Nebraska on Wednesday before wrapping the disappointing (so far) season that is following the first outright Big Ten championship in 20 years.
If Indiana wins tonight, they will move to within 1/2 game of seventh place Minnesota. With a loss, the Hoosiers will drop to 5-10 and a possible five-way tie for last place in the Big Ten (if Penn State beats Ohio State tonight).
Pacers president Larry Bird has built the Pacers to win in 2014, but they have most of their integral players locked up for another year and beyond. They have a chance to be a championship contender for several years while remaining beneath the luxury tax threshold, and that is quite a feat.
If Noah Vonleh jumps to the NBA, the Hoosiers will lose three rotation players, including seniors Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon. Their replacements comprise the 17th ranked incoming class (as ranked by ESPN), and includes guards James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson, and small forward Max Hoetzel, but only Hoetzel is as tall as 6’7″.
Size for the Pacers won’t be a problem for the foreseeable future with Roy Hibbert and David West each enjoying a player option for 2015-2016.
Where Indiana will find a front court in 2014-2015 is anyone’s guess. If Vonleh leaves for millions, the only players at or taller than 6’8″ in Bloomington next year will be seldom used Peter Jurkin, OWI arrestee Mosquera-Perea, and follow suspension victim Jeremy Hollowell.
As for the coaches, Frank Vogel is beloved in Indianapolis. He’s a very nice and accessible guy who appears derive his professional joy from putting his players in a position to succeed individually and collectively.
Conversely, people are looking at Tom Crean with jaundiced eyes. That’s what happens when reality fails to come close to expectations. Indiana lost a ton of production from last year’s team, but critics say that talent attrition occurs everywhere. Add the off-court issues, and those who reservedly cheered Crean because of the progress made through last season are loudly decrying the erosion of play and character from the Hoosiers.
Public behavioral issues appear to be in the rearview mirror of the Pacers. The days of shootouts at the Eight Second Saloon or elsewhere have ended. No Pacer has beaten the hell out of an unruly fan in almost a decade, and the sheer number of charitable works Pacers players are involved is impossible for anyone other than Greg Schenkel or Bill Benner to calculate. The overhaul of the Pacers brand has been nothing short of breathtaking.
These are two teams with similar goals migrating in different directions, and tonight they take another step. We assume a Pacers win and a Hoosiers defeat, but they play the games for a reason.
The Pacers have not been dominant recently, and the Hoosiers have already beaten top ten ranked Wisconsin and Michigan at Assembly Hall. Anything can happen, and these two narratives can change in a night.
That’s why we continue to watch.