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Hunter Tickel: GRAY AND BLUE VIEW: Indiana State's boys belong at the ball

Feb. 27—T-minus 10 days.

That's how long Sycamore Nation has to wait before descending upon A Gateway to the West for the 34th annual Missouri Valley Conference championship in St. Louis.

The Indiana State men's basketball squad will return to the scene where the team had a bad bounce on a defensive board away from progressing to Sunday's championship clash.

It would have come at least one year ahead of schedule in the second season of coach Josh Schertz's stead.

Fast forward a year later, and this outfit (24-5 overall, 15-3 MVC) locked up a first-round bye in Arch Madness with five games to spare.

Last year, the team had to win four games in four days to hoist the MVC plaque.

This brings me to my next point: The Sycamores are going to be favorites along with Drake to be the last team standing in St. Louis — maybe even 1A to 1B Bulldogs, but let me make this crystal clear...the Trees belong in March Madness and the college basketball direly needs them.

I'll state it again frankly, ISU is one of the best 36 at-large schools in the country — based on my eye test.

I'm not going to spoon-feed and highlight the team's stout résumé. The Sycamores own a NET rating of 34 and a record of 5-4 against Quad 1 and 2 combined, lead the U.S. in 59.6% effective field-goal percentage, sit in a tie for 18th with 17.1 assists and are the fourth-best shooting team at 50.1%.

I'm not going to use this piece to run through analytics. I'm more of a visual guy.

I'm going to break down what I've observed since they thumped NAIA local program Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in the opener Nov. 6.

I've been at every game outside of Alabama, the Las Vegas tourney and four games following the birth of my firstborn.

The best way to sum up the Sycamores' style of play is as the prototype of the 2020s version of basketball.

Schertz may one day get the key to the city of Terredise, but I know one thing — while I stand behind my guy and mayor Brandon Sakbun — it's clear that Schertz is the nominal mayor of Terre Haute.

Schertz has the recipe and the horses on the court to pull this off. The byproduct is a team that is very much one of the best 40 college teams in America.

Last year, the knock on this squad was its defense. He's reversed that course. He's made in-game adjustments look seamless, sans defending Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., and having a lead with 10 minutes to go.

The Sycamores switching on the perimeter and constant havoc out there are largely responsible for holding a dozen foes to single-digit assists.

In conference, ISU held Southern Illinois to two assists in the league opener at Hulman Center and limited Northern Iowa to four in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Another piece of basketball at the pro level in recent years, which Schertz has gleaned from is long-range high-percentage looks.

The team isn't jacking up a high quantity of 3s aimlessly, like James Harden of the ... he's been with too many NBA teams to keep track of ... they are within the realm of inside-out basketball and fluid ball rotation.

The team hasn't relied on 3-pointers to win big games this year, but like last year the team is loaded with marksmen. Five players are shooting 36% or better from deep, on at least 40 attempts.

The team has made 317 of 835 — a 38% clip, it needs 24 more buckets beyond the arc to surpass last year's program record of 340.

With two regular-season games left, the Trees could easily accomplish it.

The final wrinkle that tells how Schertz has marshaled ISU into one of the country's best groups is their savviness handling and passing the rock.

That goes for nearly all five players on the floor, whether in transition or as a hub at the top of the key.

Watching the likes of its fives, sophomore Robbie Avila and senior Xavier Bledson, make a decision and pick apart defenses with deft kicks to the opposite corner and bounce passes to back-door cutters is poetry in motion.

And then watching the speedy guards like Julian Larry, Ryan Conwell and Isaiah Swope push the ball down the floor and shovel passes into tight windows that weren't open 0.1 seconds ago is sublime.

The speedsters are playing chess, not checkers, as they anticipate their teammates' and defenders' next moves.

While March Madness doesn't have the feel of the 2000s that was baked with household names and NBA lottery picks, a squad like ISU is sure to turn heads and enhance the Field of 68.

They can punch their ticket a week before Selection Sunday — it will require three wins in three days.

But anyone who knows ball ... knows the game, realizes the Sycamores have earned the right to be a Cinderella.

Hunter Tickel can be reached at hunter.tickel@tribstar.com or on Twitter: @tribstarhunter.