Ten months before leading Indiana State to only its third NCAA tournament berth since the Larry Bird era, Greg Lansing admits he had all but given up on his dream of one day becoming a Division I head coach.
Lansing had previously been told he'd have an opportunity to take over at Indiana State for coach Kevin McKenna, who had emerged as one of the favorites to replace Dana Altman at Creighton. Instead Creighton hired Greg McDermott last April, seemingly ensuring McKenna would return for a fourth season at Indiana State and Lansing would have no opportunity to ascend from assistant to head coach.
"My athletic director and my president have always been very supportive and said I'd be the next guy, but when Kevin didn't go to Creighton, I got down on myself and I didn't know if it would ever happen," Lansing said by phone on Sunday afternoon. "A few weeks later, Kevin decided to join (Altman) at Oregon and I was lucky enough to be hired as his replacement."
The unlikely chain of events that landed Lansing his first head coaching job have worked out in Indiana State's favor. Not only did Lansing lead the Sycamores to a surprise third-place finish in the Valley, he also helped them secure the program's first NCAA tournament berth in a decade on Sunday afternoon with a 60-56 victory over top-seeded Missouri State.
Nobody can accuse the Sycamores of taking advantage of a favorable path to the Missouri Valley championship. Before eking out a hard-fought win over the Bears on Sunday, Indiana State survived a stiff challenge from longtime nemesis Evansville in the Friday's quarterfinal and toppled conference heavyweight Wichita State the following day.
"We're very, very thankful to have a chance to keep playing," Lansing said. "I thought we were a team that had talent before the season, but I was very concerned about where our leadership and toughness would come from. It was something we had to develop. Maybe it took longer than we would have liked, but we eventually got there and now we're a conference tournament champion and an NCAA tournament team."
The 2011 Sycamores probably won't draw many comparisons to the Bird era mainly because this year's team relies on stingy team defense and balanced offense rather than the heroics of a star.
Seven different Indiana State players average at least six points per game and three different guys led the Sycamores in scoring during their three victories this weekend. None of those were guard Dwayne Lathan, the team's lone double-digit scorer during the regular season at 11.2 points per game.
The ability to go 10 or 11 deep and not overburden any one player proved important in a tournament format. Whereas the Sycamores had fresh legs in Sunday's title game, Missouri State's weary stars, Kyle Weems and Adam Leonard, shot a combined 7 of 29 from the field.
"We've always thought our depth would win out," Lansing said. "Missouri State's a team with very good, veteran players, but they log heavy minutes. We thought with our depth, we'd be able to keep running fresh bodies in there and maybe they wouldn't have the legs."
Missouri State shot 30.5 percent for the game against Indiana State's league-best defense, but the Bears managed to remain competitive by grabbing 18 offensive rebounds. Their final chance to tie or win the game slipped away with 2.4 seconds left when Jermaine Mallett attempted to drive baseline and fumbled the ball out of bounds.
The fact that Indiana State was NCAA tournament-bound hadn't even really sunk in yet for Lansing, so he hadn't yet given much thought to where the Sycamores would be seeded next week. Lansing also said he hadn't checked his phone yet to see if Bird had called to offer congratulations.
Standing at midcourt after the game amid his jubilant players, Lansing couldn't help but reflect on the path he'd taken to arrive at that point.
He thought about longtime Indiana State coach Royce Waltman hiring him as an assistant in 2006 after he'd been fired from a similar job at Iowa months earlier. He thought about McKenna's surprising decision to abruptly resign and join Altman's staff at Oregon. And he thought about the faith Indiana State's administration had in him to select him as the man to continue the rebuilding effort that McKenna had begun.
"I'm so happy for Kevin and his family that he's doing what he's doing at Oregon, but I'm also just pleased for me, my staff and all of our players," Lansing said. "What we've accomplished this year has been a dream come true."