Hunter Tickel: BLUE & WHITE VIEW: Prominent, 'unique' squad takes to Hinkle hardwood

Apr. 1—On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Indiana State men's basketball ascends on hallowed ground when it faces Utah in the NIT semifinals — literally and figuratively.

The Sycamores (31-6) will have to take one step up to get on the Hinkle Fieldhouse hardwood, which has a playing surface elevated by several inches.

The gym is approaching its centennial in 2028 having had some fabulous professional, college and prep fixtures in the building.

"It's an older look and the inside is way nicer than what it looks like on the outside," sixth-year senior forward Xavier Bledson said on the Butler University basketball digs. "Honestly no because of the way it looks. It looks old — it's a nice gym."

It's been home to NCAA tournament games, an ABA all-star game, East-West college all-star games and Jesse Owens broke the 60-yard dash indoors in 1935. Former presidents Herbert Hoover, Dwight 'IKE' Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have set foot in the place.

Now, ISU will try to win two games in three days to add more hardware to this year's collection — Missouri Valley Conference regular season plaque and MVC tourney runner-up.

"We talk a lot about hunting great offensively," ISU coach Josh Schertz said. "I think the better defense you play, Utah is a great defense, you are going to have to be sound in your spacing. You got to stretch them the entire [50-foot width]. You got to be able to label your triggers, which means your actions and movements. You got to be able to maintain the integrity of your spacing. You got to really work to get shots that are in your wheelhouse because they [do] a good job of trying to get you to shoot shots that are analytically unsound."

The Sycamores have never played into April, the Final Four spilled over into April with tourney expansion from 48 in 1982 to 52 teams in 1983.

The Sycamores went on a run for the ages and budded a rivalry between Larry 'Legend' Bird from French Lick, Ind., and Earvin 'Magic' Johnson.

Larry 'Legend' got beat out in a game that captivated America as one of the most viewed telecasts in basketball.

The tradition that culminated in ISU's apex as a program isn't lost on current college players, including the Utes — one of the squads that stands in between ISU matching the 33 wins from 1979, albeit it will have come with five more games played.

"Yeah, I would say obviously they are a historic program," Utah guard Gabe Madsen said. "I mean, Larry Bird played there. I'd say a lot of Utah fans probably know or have seen Indiana State play. They played in the Jon M. Huntsman Center against Michigan State in the National Championship. So there's kind of a weird connection there. But yeah, I mean, not obviously a huge program but a historic one for sure."

The fanfare from Terre Haute included a sendoff at 4th and Chestnut Street in Terre Haute, Ind. The extensively pro-ISU crowd is expected to descend on the 'Indiana basketball cathedral,' and illuminate the interior of the building in blue.

This opening semifinal at the NIT features a pair of schools that have a mid-major texture. Indiana State has been residing in the Missouri Valley, while Utah was a Mountain West dweller from 1999-2011.

The Utes (22-14) have been in the PAC-12 and will move to the Big 12 next year after conference realignment and then the expungement of the PAC-12.

Utah players compared this ISU squad to BYU — another program that left the MWC when Utah did.

"Yeah, just I would say BYU," senior center Branden Carlson offered up in comparison to ISU. "They shot the [3-pointer] well. So that's a lot of emphasis for us and something that we really had to dial into is defending the 3."

Madsen doubled down on his teammate's take. Utah defeated BYU 73-69 on Dec. 9 without Deivon Smith, who was still ineligible because of two-time transfer stipulations.

"Yeah, kind of say BYU, too," he said. "Just the way they played through their five, really looks similar to how Indiana State plays and obviously shoot a lot of threes and play fast in transition. It's pretty identical, I'd say, to BYU.

As is the case in most postseason bouts in college basketball, the Sycamores pose a wrinkle to Utah that it's not completely accustomed to with sophomore Robbie Avila being a complete package on the offensive end and several players able to fill in the basket from long range.

"He's a great player, I don't think we have many five men in the PAC-12 that does what he does," 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, and we're excited to go out and face them.

These two programs are even coached by bosses with under-the-radar starts in the ranks. ISU coach Josh Schertz headed up Lincoln Memorial (Division II) before this stop. The University of Utah coach Craig Smith was with Utah State and South Dakota in the past.

His demeanor was open and had a hyperlocal feel in the press conference a day before the game and identified himself as "a small school guy."

Smith described Indiana State as 'unique' for this group's makeup.

"They are all three-level scorers, every one of them," he said. "They make good decisions. They can put it on the floor. They get to the rim. They get fouled. They have all pull-up games although he [doesn't] shoot a lot of pull-up jays. I think they are obviously very analytically driven, and they can all shoot the three. And then they get out and push the pace in transition, we call them EPAs, extra pass ahead.

"They get that defensive rebound, they are out letting it to guard and they are pitching it up ahead and constantly put pressure on you, and then they are selfless," he added. "They will drive it. If it is not there, they drive two, boom, spraying it out, looking for the next one. So they are a very well-coached team. They do some unorthodox things. They are setting screens to their five-man and double flare screens for their five-man, and he puts that thing on the deck and he can't — you know, he's such an elite passer."

Avila returned the respect for Carlson, who will likely match up with.

"He's obviously a tremendous player," Avila said of Carlson. "You know. He can do it all. He's seven feet tall. Can shoot it and play in the post. He's definitely going to be a challenge for us to be able to guard.

"But it's just exciting at this kind of time," he added. "You know you're going to play against high-level competition. So to be able to continue to play at this level is exciting. We're ready to go ahead and prepare to do our best for him and we're just ready to play."

And Utah is looking to make a dent on national television with a lot of basketball eyes on the game.

"They have a lot of energy and a lot of pride in what they do," Carlson said. "They are going to, you know, be ready to go. They come out ready every game. So just a team like that, and something with — like, you know, kind of want to earn your respect, you've got to appreciate [it]."

The last time Utah was in the postseason the program progressed to the championship game of the NIT in 2018. It hasn't been to the Big Dance since.

Deivon, a two-time transfer after playing at Mississippi State and Georgia Tech has played in 75% of the Utes games to date after sitting out early on.

He's found his footing with four triple-doubles.

His coach didn't have a player comparison, but Deivon chimed in that his vertical was 45-46 inches at the pregame press conference.

"I mean this in a very complementary way, he's a freakazoid," Craig said. "He's so fast and athletic and explosive."

Bledson, who played for Schertz at LMU, has been one of two players along with guard Julian Larry retooling the program for all three years with this regime. The team has jumped from 11 wins to 23 and now 31 this year.

"I just wanted to play [Division] I," Bledson said. "I didn't even think about all of this. Honestly, I thought about the [Big] Dance, but my first two years I thought what are the chances? Knowing that coming back and building coach Schertz, I always trusted coach Schertz. Him building this team in the summer I was like, 'We might [have] a chance to do something special.'"

And just like in the movie "Hoosiers" getting to this stage is already an immense success and growth for another program on the rise.

"We're way past big speech time," Norman Dale said in the flick about the iconic Indiana high school basketball squad.

Schertz delivered one to reporters to start this final week of 2023-24.

"The journey is always defined by who you share it with," Schertz said. "From players to coaches to our fan base, I don't know that you could share it with a better group of people than what we have been able to after the last, closing in on ten months now."

Hunter Tickel can be reached at or on Twitter: @tribstarhunter.