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Why Indiana State reminds the Runnin’ Utes of BYU

Drake's Darnell Brodie (51), left, defends against Indiana State's Robbie Avila during championship game in the Missouri Valley Conference NCAA basketball tournament Sunday, March 10, 2024, in St. Louis.
Drake's Darnell Brodie (51), left, defends against Indiana State's Robbie Avila during championship game in the Missouri Valley Conference NCAA basketball tournament Sunday, March 10, 2024, in St. Louis. | Joe Puetz

INDIANAPOLIS — If there’s one team that most closely resembles Utah’s NIT semifinal opponent, Indiana State, among programs the Runnin’ Utes have played this season, it’s one they are extremely familiar with.

“Yeah, just I would say BYU,” Utah senior center Branden Carlson said Monday when asked who Indiana State reminds him of. “They shoot the 3-point well, so that’s a lot of emphasis for us and something that we really have to dial into, is defending the 3.”

“Just the way they played through their five, really look similar to how Indiana State plays and obviously shoot a lot of 3s and play fast in transition. It’s pretty identical, I’d say, to BYU.”

Utah guard Gabe Madsen

The Utes will play the Sycamores in Tuesday’s first of two NIT semifinals at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN). The winner will advance to Thursday’s championship game between the winner of Seton Hall and Georgia.

Glance at the statistics, and it’s understandable why BYU was the answer each Utah representative gave at Monday’s NIT press conference when asked to compare what previous opponent most resembles the Sycamores.

At the center of Indiana State’s offensive attack is 6-foot-10 center Robbie Avila, who leads the Sycamores by averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.

“Yeah, (I’d) kind of say BYU, too,” Utah guard Gabe Madsen said of the comparison between Indiana State and BYU. “Just the way they played through their five, really look similar to how Indiana State plays and obviously shoot a lot of 3s and play fast in transition. It’s pretty identical, I’d say, to BYU.”

The Cougars, who made the NCAA Tournament in their first Big 12 season, were known for their 3-point propensity, making an average of 11.1 per game while shooting 34.8% from outside.

Center Aly Khalifa played an integral part in the Cougars’ offensive game plan, often playing the role of facilitator.

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BYU center Aly Khalifa celebrates a 3-pointer during the Big 12 tournament against UCF in Kansas City, Missouri, on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Indiana State, Utah's NIT semifinal opponent Tuesday night, has a big man, Robbie Avila, that is similar to Khalifa.

Aliva provides a similar role at an even higher level for Indiana State, as the Sycamores’ offense runs through the big man.

Aliva is averaging 1.6 3-pointers per game for a team that has five players with 30 or more made 3-pointers this year, including two — Isaiah Swope at 108 and Ryan Conwell at 104 — over the century mark this season for 3-pointers made.

BYU had six players with 30 or more made 3s, led by Jaxson Robinson’s 81.

Indiana State, though, has been more efficient offensively overall than BYU. The Sycamores, who play in the Missouri Valley Conference, are first nationally in effective field goal percentage (59.9%), third in field goal percentage (50.4%) and fourth in 3-pointers per game (10.9), just one spot back of the Cougars.

This year, both Indiana State and BYU shot nearly half of their field goal attempts from 3-point range. The Sycamores and Cougars are both in the top 15 nationally in 3-point attempts per game, Indiana State at 13th (28.5) and BYU second (32.0).

Perhaps that’s a good sign for Utah come Tuesday with a spot in the championship on the line.

The Utes beat their ranked rivals 73-69 back in December, holding the Cougars to 7-of-30 shooting from 3-point range and 36.6% overall.

Deivon Smith, the Utes point guard who missed the game against BYU while waiting to become eligible to play, also said Indiana State resembles the Cougars offensively.

“I didn’t play that game, but I’ll also agree with them just how they run their offensive play through their five is similar to that,” Smith said.

There’s more recent evidence that Utah’s defense is capable of stifling an offense reliant on 3-pointers.

In Utah’s NIT quarterfinal win, the Utes held VCU — a team that shot 42% of its shots from 3 — to just 5 of 26 from long range in a 74-54 Utah win.

Utes coach Craig Smith acknowledged the comparison between BYU and Indiana State, while giving credit to the Sycamores’ unique abilities.

“Indiana State is unique. These guys talked about BYU and there’s definitely some similarities there but these guys are a very unique team the way they are built,” Smith said.

“... These guys have it all. I mean, their five can really, really shoot it, elite passer. Their four-man is an amazing cutter. Shoots the ball at a high level. They all shoot the ball at a high level and their guards are very dynamic. They are all three-level scorers, every one of them. They make good decisions. They can put it on the floor. They get to the rim. They get fouled.”

He also praised Indiana State’s defense. Per KenPom, Indiana State led the MVC in defensive efficiency (100.3) and was also tops in the league in defensive 2-point and 3-point percentage (48.8%, 32.0%).

“They have great synergy. They are a well-oiled machine. They are super connected that way. I think they’re sneaky — a lot of people don’t talk about how good they are defensively. Like they are a good team defensively,” Smith said.

“If I had hair to lose, I would have lost it. But I’ve lost it a long time ago.”

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Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith yells during the NIT quarterfinal game between the Utah Utes and the Virginia Commonwealth Rams at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. The Utes face Indiana State in the NIT semifinals Tuesday in Indianapolis.