ISU captures new fans with historic season


Indiana State University basketball garnered national media coverage last few weeks with their run to the National Invitational Tournament championship game in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Even though the Sycamores lost the championship in a hard fought 79-77 defeat to Seton Hall, for long-time Sycamore fans, the excitement the run was exciting and fun.

I realized early in the season this version of Sycamore basketball had a chance to make some noise in the NCAA world. After winning the Missouri Valley Regular Season Championship all the talk was ISU making the NCAA tournament led by social media sensation center Robbie Avila. However a loss to Drake in the MVC tournament doomed the Sycamores and the NCAA Selection Committee did not select them to play in the NCAA Big Dance. But, when the NIT came calling, ISU head coach Josh Schertz gladly accepted the invite.

Indiana State is a mid-major Division 1 team. That designation is usually determined by the amount of a team’s budget and therefore the type of league they play in. The MVC was ranked ninth in the country out of 36 Division 1 conferences and the chance to play power teams was exciting for ISU. Mid-major teams do not get many chances to play Power 5 teams unless they are invited to a P5 arena or in a tournament. No P5 teams want to travel to mid-major arenas. This season the Sycamores traveled to Alabama and Michigan State to play powerhouse programs.

For instance, the last P5 teams to play in the Hulman Center resulted in Indiana University and Butler heading home with their tails between their legs.

The NIT saw three top programs come to Terre Haute, or Terredise as many locals now call their hometown. And all three teams, Southern Methodist University (joining the ACC next season), Minnesota (Big 10) and Cincinnati (Big 12) were eliminated in the House that Larry Bird Built.

In the NIT semi-finals the Sycamores took out Utah of the PAC-12 setting up a battle with Seton Hall of the Big East.

The excitement this ISU team caused among its fan base all across the nation was evident. They also added fans. When ISU played on ESPN, the networks’ viewership went up considerably. The chanpionship game had the most viewers watch an NIT game since 2010 with 1.4 million watching. Basketball fans wanted to see the Trees with their entertaining style of basketball Schertz brought to the Wabash Valley.

I, of course, was right in the middle of the action during the regular season and NIT. Sellouts at the Hulman Center are rare but the team did have seven this season. Hinkle Fieldhouse was turned into Hulman Center East with old and new Indiana State fans. I even brought out my Horrible Hanky from the famous 1978-79 season when Larry Bird led ISU to the national finals only to lose to Michigan State and a guy named Magic.

I said all season long, I was impressed with the amount of young people and families that showed up to ISU games this season.  The community was invested in the team. Heck, every elementary school in Vigo County held a pep session on Thusday. The community wrapped their arms around the team and coaches. And, the team and coaches wrapped their arms around an adoring fan base. It truly was a love affair.

The disappointment in losing the game hit Tree fans and team members hard. I was lucky enough to have media credentials so I sat in post-game interviews and saw players in Hinkle Fieldhouse hallways with genuine tears streaming down their faces, especially when they would greet family members. I sat in the media interview room and listened to Coach Schertz talk about how devastated his squad was. I felt gut punched as well. If anyone says the NIT is for losers only, then they did not see how much ISU players, coaches and fans cared. When you deeply care about something, that thing becomes a big deal.

I have said through the years that being an Indiana State University sports fan is not easy in the middle of Big 10 country where success is measured in wins and losses. Being an ISU fan since 1967 I have seen the ups and downs. But, what I have enjoyed the most is watching the journey of Indiana State athletics.

The basketball team journey is at a crossroads once again. Last Friday, Schertz announced he was moving to St. Louis University with a $1.6 million pay raise. All five ISU starters  have entered the portal and it is assumed most of the present roster will be at other universities next winter.

My hope is that unlike when the university did not take advantage of the Bird years, this time around ISU will try to keep the momentum going with a good coaching hire and new recruits that can be competitive.

The journey continues in Terredise, and rest assured I will be there watching the Sycamores march on to whatever the future holds.