NIT semifinals is no 'Hoosiers' for Indiana State. It's what team expected after March Madness snub

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana State coach Josh Schertz left the measuring tape at home Monday.

In the midst of a 31-win season that included a Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title and the school’s first AP Top 25 appearance in nearly half a century, Schertz found it unnecessary to show his players the free-throw line, the rim or even the 3-point line at Hinkle Fieldhouse were any different from what they have at home.

No, reaching the NIT semifinals is not a surprising “Hoosiers” experience. It’s what Indiana State expected to do after being left out of the NCAA Tournament.

“We talked about going into our preparation that week between the MVC Tournament and the NCAA Selection Show where we didn’t know if we were going to be in (the NCAA Tournament and we said we were going to be prepared to try to prove the committee right hopefully by being in the tournament and advancing or preparing to prove the committee wrong,” Schertz said Monday. “Turns out we had to prepare to prove the committee wrong.”

The Sycamores (31-6) have spent all season proving people wrong.

In the MVC preseason poll, they were picked fourth. When they were written off after falling into an 18-point, second-half deficit in the MVC title game, the Sycamores valiantly fought back before losing 84-80 to Drake. And when the NCAA selection committee ignored their high NET ranking, Indiana State didn't fret.

The Sycamores decided to chase history.

Beating Utah (22-14) in Tuesday night's semifinal would tie Indiana State's longest postseason winning streak in its Division I era, matching the four wins from 1979 when the unbeaten Sycamores marched to the national championship game with Larry Bird. Schertz said the Hall of Fame forward has followed the tourney run but isn't sure if Bird will return to his home state for this week's games.

Beating Utah and either Georgia or Seton Hall in Thursday's championship game would match the program's single-season school record for victories and bring the school its first postseason crown since the 1950 NAIA championship.

And with just 85 miles separating NIT host Butler University from Bird's statue outside the Hulman Center, the last mid-major team still playing is expected to have a decided home-court advantage.

“I feel like we really don’t view it as that,” guard Ryan Conwell said. “I feel like we view it as we’re just a really good team, and I feel like we also just believe in one another, and I feel like that’s what’s been keeping us, you know, pushing and allowed us to keep playing.”

But the Sycamores don't look like any of the other men's teams that survived March. The others are all power-conference schools.

Indiana State starts four guards, leads the nation in 3-pointers made (403), has just two players topping 6-foot-8 and boasts one of college basketball's most unusual and intriguing stars, sophomore center Robbie Avila.

At 6-10, 240 pounds, the goggle-wearing Avila has become a star on and off the court with social media followers nicknaming him everything from “Cream Abdul-Jabbar” to “Milk Chamberlain" and “Larry Blurred."

Avila, a first-team all-MVC selection who averages 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists, said it all began after a Thanksgiving tournament in Las Vegas before hitting a fever pitch when Indiana State began re-emerging on the national map in January and February.

“My favorite nickname has been ‘Robwave,’ which comes after my favorite rapper. To have a similar name as him has been a lot of fun," he said, referring to the singer Rod Wave. “I'm just grateful to get all this attention. It’s been a lot of fun but I’m just able to kind of use that to also shine the light on our team.”

Now, though, seemingly everybody knows his name, his nicknames and his game.

“He’s a great player, I don’t think we have too many five-men in the Pac-12 that does what he does,” Utes center Branden Carlson said. “He’s more of a stretch five, very skilled, can do a lot of different things. So we’re going to have to be very prepared to guard him.”

Third-year coach Craig Smith has led Utah to its first postseason appearance since 2018 and after beating UC-Irvine, Iowa and VCU and is eager to see how his squad measures up Tuesday against Avilla & Co.

He's just hoping to ruin the ending for a Sycamores sequel.

“Today was awesome in practice,” he said. “What a historic venue in Hinkle Fieldhouse. We didn’t pull out the tape measure but we did designate our Ollie, Brandon Haddock.”


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