ESPN’s GameDay broadcasters have been to a lot of venues now and have seen a lot of great atmospheres, but they can tell a difference, they say, when the home team is playing the No. 1 team in the country.
They felt that Saturday morning at Assembly Hall, they said, with No. 3 Indiana preparing for No. 1 Michigan in the most anticipated matchup in colege basketball so far this season.
“Great Gameday,” analyst and former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps said. “They smelled it. It’s always, especially when you’ve got No. 1 to come to town, I don’t care where you go. There’s always that extra edge — and obviously at Notre Dame we had a little success against No. 1 teams — but it’s hard not too. And it’s got nothing to do with Michigan. They got the tag.”
In what has become typical at Indiana for home games, students lined up outside Assembly Hall hours before the doors opened. About 5,000 crimson-and-cream clad fans filled about three-quarters of the stands above the east sideline, holding up signs and cardboard big heads of various luminaries including IU coach Tom Crean, athletic director Fred Glass and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. It wasn’t as loud in Assembly Hall as it is for an actual game, but it was close, and it mostly drowned out the voices of the GameDay commentators, which were being broadcast on the public address system.
The broadcasters very much played to the crowd. Bilas wore candy-striped warm-up pants with his jacket-shirt-and tie, drawing the cheers of IU students. Analyst Jalen Rose, a former Michigan star who played the villain for much of the day, wore a candy-striped jacket.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” Rose said. “I came in thinking I was looking clean as the board of health and what not. All of the sudden, the fan base would not have it. There was a gentleman whose mom, I think he said, made him the jacket. Honorarily, he allowed me to borrow it. My good friend Sage Steele (an Indiana alum) at ESPN, I’m pretty sure she’ll get a kick out of that.”
As is typical, ESPN filled the two-hour Gameday show with features to try to showcase Indiana’s personalities, putting together a segment focused on sophomore center Cody Zeller’s impact on the program , his ability to handle the attention that follows him everywhere, and his nickname, The Big Handsome. They also played Know Your Teammate with IU junior guard Victor Oladipo and senior forward Christian Watford, in which it was revealed that Oladipo has songs by Rascal Flatts, Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra on his iPod, and that Crean and academic advisor Marni Mooney want Watford to shave off his beard. ESPN added a twist to that game by having Tom Crean and his wife Joani — sister of Super Bowl coaches Jim and John Harbaugh — play “Know Your Harbaughs.” The highlight of that one was that Crean said Jim Harbaugh would be a better basketball coach because he would pound the ball inside, and John would run the Princeton offense.
The analysts drew cheers and boos for how they picked the game. Rose stuck with his school and picked Michigan. Phelps and Bilas picked Indiana however, and all of them said there’s a chance that this will be the first of several matchups between the two teams this season. They will play at Ann Arbor on March 10, and both Phelps and Rose said they could see them playing in the Big Ten championship game and also the NCAA Tournament.
“I would not be surprised at all if Indiana won, they’re that good,” Rose said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these teams played four times this year. I expect some great things out of this matchup.”
And in that close of a matchup, Phelps pointed out, fans matter.
“Both of these teams are that good,” Phelps said. “… I love the atmosphere here, because things happen when you bring No. 1 in your house. As I told the students earlier today, ‘You for 40 minutes, stay on them. They know what they gotta do. But when they got momentum going or if there’s a time when you’ve gotta stop what Michigan’s doing, it’s the crowd that gets you into that mode to pull off the upset.’”