News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 16, 2014

ISU men NIT-bound

Sycamores to face Arkansas on Tuesday

TERRE HAUTE — After sitting on pins and needles for a week and after watching one conference champion after another fall in their conference tournaments, Indiana State’s National Invitation Tournament chances seemed to be a knife’s edge on Sunday.

The Sycamores, however, were not cut.

ISU was chosen to participate in the NIT for the second consecutive season. The Sycamores will play at Arkansas at 9 p.m. Tuesday, and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

“It was a long day,” ISU coach Greg Lansing acknowledged. “We had a team meeting with the guys and their heads were still hanging, and they were disappointed with how the season ended. They were concerned [about their fate]. When our name came up, it was a relief, and there was tons of excitement.”

As they were last season, the Sycamores will be a No. 6-seed in the 32-team field. And as they were last season, ISU was one of the last at-large teams chosen for the NIT field. Two of the No. 6 seeds in the field were automatic qualifiers (Georgia State, Iona). The other No. 6 seed, Toledo, was an at-large selection.

ISU was chosen to participate over better-known teams like Marquette, Maryland, UNLV, and most notably, Indiana. What saw the Sycamores through?

“We made it last year, and though we had some signature wins last year, this year our RPI was about the same. We had five more wins, and we were second in our conference,” Lansing said.

“The Missouri Valley is still one of the best, if not the best, mid-major conference,” Lansing said. “We were second-place outright and got to the conference tournament final. I think the committee has a lot of good teams to look at. For them to give us a chance, it’s an honor.”

It’s an honor Lansing wasn’t sure the Sycamores would get a chance to celebrate. Because automatic bids are available in the NIT to all regular season conference champions who didn’t win their conference tournaments and weren’t chosen as at-large teams for the NCAA Tournament, it was a long week of waiting for the Sycamores.

Upsets abounded in the conference tournaments, and ultimately, there were 13 conference champions who automatically qualified for the NIT. The last of them, Georgia State from the Sun Belt Conference, blew a late 11-point lead in the Sun Belt Conference title game on Sunday and fell to Louisiana-Lafayette in overtime.

“I’m sitting in the office and I’m watching Georgia State with Jake [Odum] and they’re up 11 and they gave it away. We were counting the guaranteed bids … and you’re nervous,” Lansing admitted.

Besides ISU’s resume — perhaps it’s most notable attribute was its nine road wins — Lansing gave credit to Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin who did some lobbying for the Sycamores to the NIT committee.

“I’ve been in constant contact with Doug Elgin, who’s a great advocate for the league and for us, I think that’s part of the reason we got in,” Lansing said.

Now that the Sycamores (23-10) are in the NIT the challenge is getting ready for it. ISU will likely travel to Fayetteville, Ark., today for Tuesday’s game. That leaves one day of practice time in Terre Haute and a walk-through and shoot-around in Fayetteville on game day.

This against an Arkansas team that plays the self-proclaimed “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball,” a style espoused by coach Mike Anderson, and one that’s been successful for him at Arkansas, Missouri and UAB.

The Razorbacks (21-11) average 80.3 points per game — 16th best in Division I — and have won six of their last eight games. Arkansas is 16-2 at Bud Walton Arena this season. Its only losses were to top-ranked Florida (by two) and Missouri.

Arkansas tripped in the last week of its Southeastern Conference campaign. The Razorbacks lost 83-58 at Alabama and fell 71-69 to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.

“It’s scary. They’re 16-2 at home and won eight of their last 10 and will press the entire time,” Lansing said. “The guys are still a little down about last week and they haven’t been practicing at as high a level as we’d want to be. Part of it was because we didn’t know who or what we’d be playing in. It’s a tough draw for sure.”

ISU has played Arkansas four times — all of the meetings occurred in the 1970s — and the teams have split the all-time series.

Easily the most famous ISU-Arkansas matchup came in the 1979 NCAA Tournament. In a Midwest Regional final in Cincinnati, ISU’s Bob Heaton broke a 71-all deadlock with a left-handed shot in the lane (Heaton is right-handed) at the buzzer to lift the Sycamores to a 73-71 victory that clinched ISU’s berth in the Final Four.

 

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