Mark Bennett: 24 years ago, Terre Haute, Sycamores awaited NCAA's invite and got it

Mar. 15—Terre Haute fans hoped and waited.

Their Indiana State Sycamores had good credentials for a berth in college basketball's "Big Dance" — the NCAA Tournament. ISU won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship. The Sycamores had performed well against some "power conference" opponents.

Yet, ISU lacked an automatic NCAA berth after losing in the MVC Tournament.

That was then, March 2000. This is now, March 2024. All of those aforementioned circumstances are the same.

So, like the 1999-2000 Sycamores, this season's squad is hearing all the advocates and skeptics as they await the NCAA Selection Sunday announcement of who's in and who's not in the tournament field. Just like 2000, the complete NCAA bracket — chosen by a 12-member committee — will be revealed at 6 p.m. Sunday on CBS and TNT networks.

Twenty-four years ago, the NCAA's answer was "yes." The Selection Committee put ISU in the then-64-team field, giving the Sycamores a No. 12 seed and a first-round matchup against fifth-seeded Texas in Salt Lake City, Utah. (The tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011.)

It was a tense wait that Sunday, all those years ago.

The Sycamore players, coaches and support staff, along with members of the Terre Haute news media, gathered in the home of late ISU coach Royce Waltman and his wife Carole to watch the Selection Sunday show on TV. An air of festivity and optimism reigned, until CBS sports anchor Greg Gumbel and Co. unveiled the first three regionals. Indiana State wasn't among those first 48 teams chosen. Only the West Regional remained.

The only sounds in the packed room came from the TV. We all looked at each other, but said nothing.

The team's senior leader, Nate Green, broke the silence.

"It's awful quiet in here," Green said, breaking into a big grin.

Then the 16-team West Regional bracket flashed on the screen, and ISU was on it. Yes, the Sycamores got probably the worst possible matchup — facing a tall Texas club anchored by 7-foot, 265-pound future NBA first-rounder Chris Mihm — but Indiana State earned its first NCAA berth since Larry Bird took the '78-79 team to the NCAA Final. And, they would be playing in Salt Lake City, where their '79 predecessors played in the Final Four.

Spontaneous shouts of joy filled the room, and the Sycamores literally danced in excitement on the carpeted floor of the Waltmans' home. Waltman bear-hugged his longtime assistant Dick Bender and others. The close-call delivery of the Sycamores' NCAA selection fit their season.

"It's just like our individual games or the [race for the MVC title], right down to the wire," Waltman said.

Eventually, the Sycamores would fly to the Wastach Mountains and Salt Lake, where they feistily battled the lanky Longhorns but lost 77-61. Mihm and fellow future NBA teammate Chris Owens both scored 16 points, while ISU got more than one-third of its points — 22, to be exact — from 5-11 guard Michael Menser and another 10 from fellow future Indiana State Athletics Hall of Famer Matt Renn.

That NCAA trip was a precursor to a better outcome. In 2001, Menser and Renn led an ISU team that won the MVC Tournament and its automatic Big Dance berth and beat fourth-seeded Oklahoma in a first-round thriller in Memphis.

Tournament "bracketologists" — college hoops gurus who study statistics like accountants preparing tax returns — built arguments against ISU in 2000, just as many are doing now with the 2024 team. Waltman's team had a couple "bad losses" in their 22-9 record. Those included a 14-point drubbing at Austin Peay and a 19-point thumping at Southern Illinois — as well as an unspectacular 6-4 mark in their final 10 games.

But the Sycamores also had a historic 63-60 victory at Indiana, becoming the first visiting team to beat coach Bob Knight's Hoosiers in their own IU Classic, as well as a win over TCU in the Top of the World Classic in Alaska.

Craig Thompson, chair of the NCAA Selection Committee in 2000, cited ISU's "high-profile win against a strong IU team" in the panel's reasoning for picking the Sycamores.

Much has changed since then. Waltman's stint at ISU ended in 2007 after some tough seasons. He passed away in 2014. ISU has played in the NCAA Tournament only once since his teams' back-to-back appearances, when then-coach Greg Lansing's squad won the MVC Tournament and advanced to the 2011 Big Dance.

In three seasons of rapid ascension, current coach Josh Schertz has guided ISU to national prominence, yielding the school's first AP Top 25 ranking — albeit a brief one. Schertz's Sycamores score big, shoot smart and defend tenaciously. They won the MVC regular-season title with a 17-3 record, and stand 28-6 overall.

These days, the calculations include a team's NCAA NET ranking — a composite figure based on factors such as strength of opponents and game sites. ISU's NET ranking is a sparkling No. 28 in the country. Teams are categorized into quadrants, so a prospective NCAA squad's performance against strong Quad 1 teams or weaker Quad 2, 3 or 4 foes matters. ISU is 1-4 against Quad 1, but also didn't lose many should've-would've games, and is 4-1 vs. Quad 2 opponents, 10-0 against Quad 3, and 12-1 vs. Quad 4.

Lots of numbers. Lots of doubters. Lots of hopers. Lots of what-ifs.

Schertz and the Sycamores will view the Selection Sunday show in a private team-only gathering, ISU sports information said Friday.

The community will watch it intently, too.

Green, the 2000 MVC Player of the Year, is now a NBA referee. The 46-year-old Terre Haute resident is following his alma mater while on the NBA road, and believes the Sycamores deserve a NCAA berth, just like his team 24 years ago.

"Back in 1999-2000, the MVC had been a one bid league year after year. You either won the MVC Tournament or you just didn't get in the Big Dance," Green said Friday. "We understood that, but we also knew our season, talent, and the work we put in spoke for itself. So while we were realistic, we were also excited and optimistic that we would be the team to break the one bid mold. It's without a doubt something we're all still proud of to this day."

Mid-major schools like ISU face more odds now.

"The reality is that mid-majors have a tougher hill to climb when trying to lock up an at large bid," Green said. "But one thing I'm certain of, this year's ball club has earned it. First of all, from what I know we have high character young men that have embraced this [Terre Haute] community wholeheartedly. From a basketball standpoint, in my mind, we check all the boxes and would be a first round nightmare matchup whoever we'd play."

Menser is now a 44-year-old assistant principal at Plainfield High School. He vividly recalls seeing "Indiana State" pop up on the Selection Sunday show in 2000, and thinks the current Sycamores have earned that chance, too.

"I remember sitting in Coach Waltman's living room, nervous about the selection show," Menser said Friday. "We felt good about the body of work that we had put in, but being a mid-major didn't know how the committee would view our team. The other thing I remember is how excited everyone was when our name showed up on the television.

"I think this year's team 100% deserves to be in the tournament," Menser added. "Each conference tournament is important as we follow those for the at-large bids. Coach Schertz and the team have had an amazing season and are so fun to watch. I look forward to cheering them on in the first round of the NCAA tournament."

Renn recalls the team entered that Selection Sunday confidently.

"We were getting nervous though when they put the first two regions up and we weren't selected," Renn said Friday. Then one of the other bubble teams got selected, St. Bonaventure. "When they came up I remember thinking, 'Maybe we aren't in.' But shortly thereafter our name was called. I think that's part of the reason, if you watch the video, we were so excited. It was a rollercoaster ride for sure."

Renn believes the 2024 team is in. "As of [Friday afternoon], the outcomes of all of the conference tourneys aren't out, but yes I think we're in. I believe there are about two slots [available], and we'll get one of them and deserve to. If something crazy happens in these last few days and a couple bids get stolen, we could be on the outside looking in, which is crazy for how good this team is."

This columnist agrees. ISU has the tangibles in its record and statistical resume, and the intangibles in the program's history and its coach's assembly of the team. As I wrote on the eve of Selection Sunday 2000, the Sycamores have earned a bid.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or