By Todd Golden
TERRE HAUTE — The Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic draw takes place on Tuesday and the much-beloved tournament tips off on Dec. 26 at Terre Haute North.
I don’t think I’m going out on any precarious limb when I say that the wild success of the event has made it the most talked-about, most cared-about and best-locally attended event in the area ... and that includes things like Indianapolis Colts training camp and the NCAA Cross Country championships, which draw more regional and national attention, but not always local interest to match.
One of the reasons the tournament is a smash hit is that it brings local fans together in a context that is no longer possible given the fragmentation of high school athletics in the class sports era.
Another is the potential of upset that was mostly removed from sectional play once class sports began.
Hindsight and the overflow crowds over the years at South and North make it seem so obvious that a concept like the Pizza Hut Classic would be a smash hit. It also seems clear a college tournament featuring Indiana’s Division I schools would also be extremely popular. And, obviously, many of the aforementioned factors that make the Pizza Hut Classic a smash hit would make an Indiana tournament wildly popular too.
I’m not the first one who has thought an all-Indiana Division I tournament would be a great idea and I won’t be the last. However, it’s a concept that’s been a pipe dream. Perhaps, it remains so.
Indiana — and to a lesser extent, Purdue — are reluctant to play the state’s mid-major schools, much less in a tournament format. Notre Dame almost seems divorced from Indiana at all, given its Big East Conference affiliation and fanbase that is national more so than Hoosier in nature. Even Butler has got to the point where it picks and chooses what state teams it prefers to play ... Indiana State not being one of them at present.
There’s also the problem of there being 10 in-state Division I schools, which makes an even bracket-style tournament impossible without excluding two teams.
But it could be done. The answer comes from international soccer. Yes, you read that right.
International soccer qualifies teams for the World Cup and other tournaments via the group format. Why not split the 10 Indiana schools into two groups, play four round-robin games within their group, and have the group champions play in a championship game?
One rule would have to be made: teams in conferences that have more than one team in Indiana would have to be on opposite sides of the group draw. That’s an easy fix as the Big Ten (Indiana, Purdue), Missouri Valley (ISU, Evansville), Horizon League (Butler, Valparaiso) and Summit League (IUPUI and IPFW) all provide an even split of state teams.
If two teams from the same conference do happen to play each other in the championship game, obviously, it wouldn’t count in their league standings. The teams that didn’t make the championship could be paired up on the final day for a consolation game so each team would get five guaranteed games. The tournament could be played at Conseco Fieldhouse or Lucas Oil Stadium over the course of a week.
It would work something like this:
Group A — Purdue, Evansville, Butler, IUPUI, Ball State
Group B — Indiana, Indiana State, Valparaiso, IPFW, Notre Dame
In this scenario, ISU would play IU, Valpo, IPFW, Notre Dame and a team from the other group in either the championship game or a consolation game. The draw could either be done blindly, or, could be pre-determined to give the two groups balance on an annual basis.
Those of you who have been to the Pizza Hut Classic and know how fun it is can imagine the possibilities. How about the state’s mid-major schools knowing they’d have five non-conference games guaranteed every season? How about multiple David and Goliath scenarios? And how about a championship game that would almost always provide two teams that are factors on the national scene?
Perhaps it will always be a pipe dream ... but perhaps not. Even at big schools, athletic budgets are tight. One of the biggest expenses for any school is travel and many schools are under orders to tailor schedules to be travel-friendly to alleviate the bottom line.
Given that, how could anyone who counts beans not salivate at the prospect of a drivable trip for multiple games to a venue packed with passionate fans (and donors) as interest in all of the state’s basketball programs hit a fever pitch? It’s a no-brainer.
So why go to Cancun when you can go to Conseco? Why go to L.A. when you can go to Lucas Oil? An all-Indiana college tournament would be Indiana basketball at its zenith. It’s a pipe dream I think we’d all love to become reality.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or email@example.com. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.