Tomorrow ESPN's talking heads and their cameras will fill Assembly Hall early in the morning for their popular College Gameday broadcast, an all-day on-campus show that climaxes with the Hoosiers tilt against Michigan State at 9 p.m. It's the Gameday crew's first trip to Bloomington and an opportunity that most programs beg for—a chance to be the center of the college basketball world for a day. Unfortunately for IU it comes at time when their program, more specifically their embattled head coach, would rather be hiding under a rock.
But the Hoosiers can't "re-schedule" this one. As they say on Broadway, and in Bristol, the show must go on. As a matter of fact, ESPN executives are probably doing cartwheels that their first trip to Bloomington comes at such a newsworthy time.
Of course, it's simply another bad development for Indiana as even more unwanted publicity is about to come their way at the worst possible time. They'll be lucky if ESPN doesn't dub this week's broadcast from Bloomington "Sanctions Saturday". Instead of talking about IU's impressive duo of D.J. White and Eric Gordon, two of the leading contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year, the talking heads will spend over 12 hours tomorrow talking about the disgrace and dark cloud Kelvin Sampson has brought to the IU program. It's a PR nightmare for Indiana and one their moving quickly to mitigate. However, no matter what happens at today's press conference featuring IU President Michael McRobbie, there's little IU can do to change the course of public discourse on Saturday.
But I have a strong feeling that no one is crying for the IU administration today. This is a problem that they helped to create by endorsing a coach with a checkered past and a propensity for feeling above the law (or at the very least indifferent to it). Even after the NCAA's report of five possible major violations hit the airwaves yesterday, Sampson was still clinging to his own personal company line—that he never "knowingly" violated any NCAA rule. It's a defense that rings hollow to most, like many of his recent explanations.
The most galling of these is the one Sampson has been using to assure fans that his team will continue to keep focused during this rocky season. The second-year IU coach has frequently been asked how his team has responded to his battles with the NCAA and how it is affecting them with the same stock answer, basically claiming that this is his problem and nothing for them to worry about.
This may be true on some obscure level, but at its core it couldn't be farther from the truth, something Sampson seems to be increasingly falling out of touch with these days. To even suggest this doesn't affect his players is foolish and Saturday's ESPN media bonanza is a clear example of why. Instead of being excited that they will be the center of the basketball universe on Saturday, the IU players are most likely convinced, and rightfully so, that they will be little more than a footnote tomorrow. Assuredly the infamous star of the show will be Sampson himself. It's a safe bet to say more time will be spent discussing three-way calls than the triple teams Gordon often attracts; more talk about the double-dealing IU coach than White's prolific double-doubles. That's a true shame since both players are exemplary college athletes deserving of the praise and attention on ESPN's national platform.
Give White credit for being an outstanding team leader and publicly stating that Sampson's mess hasn't affected him or his team. It's the type of things leaders are supposed to say in the middle of media storms. After all White has been through during his IU career, it might even be true…for him at least.
But what about the other players on this team? Kyle Taber for example, a walk-on junior that has improbably worked his way into meaningful minutes, but now faces the prospect of starting over again with a new coach next season. Or DeAndre Thomas, a player who struggled with his weight and attitude at times, but has followed Sampson's lead to make incredible strides in both departments this season? What kind of example is Sampson setting now for him and his teammates?
Regardless of how the coach wants to spin it, his misdeeds have made life harder for everyone at Indiana University and taken the focus away from where it rightfully deserves to be—squarely on his players. That's why Saturday won't be what it's supposed to be for these players and why Sampson wasn't supposed to put them in this position. He may talk a good game about putting his players first, but in this case his actions speak louder than his words. Now the Hoosier players must spend the rest of their season trying to rise above that unwanted and unnecessary noise with their actions.
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