Mark Bennett: Like ISU's last NIT home game, lots of reasons for big crowd

Mar. 19—OK, it's impossible for Wednesday's Southern Methodist-Indiana State game to replicate the atmosphere of the last NIT basketball duel played in Hulman Center.

But it still will be dramatic.

Larry Bird was the unmatchable variable in the last home National Invitation Tournament game involving a Sycamores team. Bird and his teammates beat archrival Illinois State in a 73-71 thriller in that one, played on Friday, March 10, 1977, when Hulman Center wasn't even four years old yet.

Now, the nation's oldest postseason college basketball tournament is returning to that building, which just marked its 50th anniversary. The 2023-24 Sycamores are the top-seeded team in their eight-team bracket with a 28-6 record and a No. 28 national rating in the NCAA's NET rankings.

Like the 1977-78 ISU team, the current Sycamores enter the NIT with strong credentials and a chip on their shoulders after a narrow loss in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game.

As the MVC regular-season champ, coach Josh Schertz's team was the top seed at "Arch Madness," the conference tourney's neutral site since 1991.

But it lost in the title duel 84-80 to No. 2 Drake.

ISU's résumé should have earned a bid. Instead, the NCAA Selection Committee decided the Sycamores' non-MVC performance wasn't enough to put a second MVC team in the field. Meanwhile, the committee found the power conferences more deserving, resulting in the SEC and Big 12 getting eight teams in each and the Big Ten and Mountain West six each. ISU had to win one particular game to get into the "Big Dance." Fifth-place power-league teams could lose three of their last four games, but punch their ticket into the field with their "body of work."

Some things never change.

Back in 1977-78, Bird's junior season, the Sycamores lost the MVC tournament title game 54-52 at Creighton. The MVC played its tourney at campus sites back then.

Getting into the NCAA field was tougher too. It included only 32 teams; now it's 68. The NIT field featured just 16 teams; now it's 32. Thus, Bird and ISU didn't get into the '78 NCAA field, despite a 22-8 record and an AP Top 25 ranking as high as No. 4 that season.

Still, the Sycamores and their fans didn't treat that 1978 game like an afterthought. And the same thing should be true Wednesday.

A shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of 10,150 filled Hulman Center that night 46 years ago. Prior to that, Indiana State had only played one NIT game ever — an 83-82 heartbreaker loss at Houston in the previous season, Bird's sophomore year. Founded in 1938, one year before the NCAA tournament, the NIT carried historical prestige then and should now. The seven power-conference teams that turned down NIT bids this year — including Oklahoma and Pitt, two of the "first four out" of the NCAA, and Indiana — made an elitist choice. The other two "first four out" teams, ISU and Seton Hall, admirably chose to continue competing in the NIT.

Bird and the Sycamores played to win in '78 too.

As they battled the Redbirds back in Hulman Center, Bird amassed 27 points and 11 rebounds. But two of his teammates delivered the end-of-game heroics. Marshall, Ill., ace guard Howie Johnson hit a crucial 20-foot jumper with 2 minutes left to play, then flung a sharp assist to Sycamore forward Dan Rutledge for a layin with 37 seconds remaining to secure the program's first postseason win in its NCAA Division I era.

The victory sent ISU into a second-round NIT clash with Rutgers. That game also could've been played in Hulman Center, but the NIT honchos opted to put it in the Knights' homecourt in New Jersey.

As NIT rep Scott Whitelow told Terre Haute Tribune sports columnist Jimmy Claus, "We don't have a crystal ball. We just felt the Indiana State-Rutgers game at New Brunswick, New Jersey, would go well."

Whitelow wasn't wrong.

A standing-room-only crowd packed the Rutgers arena, fascinated by the faceoff of Bird, a consensus All-American as a junior, and the Knights' 6-foot-10 center "Jammin'" James Bailey. Bird and Bailey were teammates on the gold medal-winning Team USA squad in the World University Games the previous year.

Rutgers used a box-and-one defense to hold Bird to 23 points, seven below is per-game average. Bird also grabbed 11 rebounds. The other half of ISU's "Larry and Harry Show," Harry Morgan capitalized on the double-teaming of Bird to score 14 of his 18 points in the second half.

Alas, Bailey stole a Sycamore inbound pass and flipped the ball to Rutgers teammate Rodney Duncan, who hit the game-winning shot in the final 30 seconds for a 57-56 ISU loss.

One year later, of course, Bird took the Sycamores on a 33-1 ride, losing only the NCAA final to Michigan State.

ISU didn't play in the NIT again until 2013, when coach Greg Lansing's team lost 68-52 at Iowa, and then again in 2014, when his next squad lost 91-71 at Arkansas. Thus, ISU holds a cumulative record of 1-4 in the NIT.

Schertz's 2023-24 team could even that record, and do so on Hoosier soil.

As the No. 1 seed, ISU could play a second-round NIT home game, facing Tuesday's Butler-Minnesota winner Saturday or Sunday. The dates and times will be announced after Wednesday's NIT games. If ISU would win in the second round, the Sycamores would play a March 26 or 27 quarterfinals home game. If they would win that, the next step is the semifinals and finals to be played in Indianapolis' historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.

That's a lot of what-ifs, though, and ISU must first face a Southern Methodist team that routed the Missouri Valley's Murray State 92-65 on Dec. 22 on the Racers' home floor. ISU beat Murray by 11 and 12 points during the regular season.

SMU has lost five of its last six games. ISU has won six of its last seven. Sycamore fans are hoping they'll see Schertz and the bulk of his talented lineup back for what could be an even better 2024-25 season, but should also understand that college teams change significantly from season to season in this age of portal transfers.

This present team has something to prove to the NCAA, given that the No. 28 Sycamores are the highest-NET ranked squad ever passed over for the Big Dance.

And, their fans have lots of reasons to turn out in full-house numbers, once again, for the opportunity to see Schertz's lineup of Robbie Avila, Ryan Conwell, Julian Larry, Isaiah Swope, Jayson Kent, Xavier Bledson and their teammates play.

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