News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sycamores 2011

March 16, 2011

SPECIAL SECTION: Hughes, News & Views: 1978-79 Sycamores rooting for ISU from all over country

TERRE HAUTE — Bill Hodges has not been employed by Indiana State since 1982.

Yet he’s been texting friends with a “Fear the Trees” message — referring to the university’s Sycamore mascot — since ISU won the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament March 6 at St. Louis.

The 68-year-old Hodges lives, teaches world history to high school students and coaches boys high school basketball in Roanoke, Va. As longtime Wabash Valley residents fondly remember, he guided the 1978-79 Sycamores to that famous NCAA championship game at Salt Lake City, where they lost to Michigan State 75-64 and ended their season at 33-1.

I hope I’m not the only one who has noticed a similarity between current Indiana State coach Greg Lansing and the 1970s version of Hodges.

Both were relatively young ISU assistants thrust into the head position by unexpected circumstances — Hodges because of health problems suffered by previous coach Bob King and Lansing because of previous coach Kevin McKenna taking an assistant’s job at Oregon — and both helped ISU reach the NCAA tournament in their first season in charge.

Will Lansing’s 2010-11 team battle for the NCAA title like Hodges’ first-year team did? It seems unlikely, being that ISU is a No. 14 seed in the East Region, but there would be no need to play the games if the higher seeds always won. Upsets are certain to happen at all four regions this week, so why can’t ISU pull off one of them Friday against Syracuse?

Hodges, along with several ’78-79 ISU players living across the country, are proud of the current Sycamores’ run of success. Hodges watched their 60-56 victory over Missouri State in the MVC championship game on television from his den.

“I was really pulling for them,” he said in a phone interview. “I thought it was going to slip away, but they hung in there.”

Hodges was particularly impressed with ISU’s tenacious defense. “That’s the best defense I’ve seen from them since I was there,” he mentioned.

Looking ahead, Hodges hopes the Sycamores “play hard and have a deep bench” and he hopes Lansing can keep the players loose if they get tight during tough times in the NCAA tourney.

His advice to the players: “You’ve got to give it everything you’ve got every minute you’re on the floor.”

Carl Nicks, a junior guard and second-best player on the ’78-79 Sycamores, also has faith in ISU and he’ll find a way to watch Friday’s game from somewhere.

A college scout for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers nowadays, Nicks admits Syracuse is good. But he added that ISU players shouldn’t be overly respectful toward their opponent’s No. 3 seed.

“That doesn’t mean crap,” he insisted. “Just have fun. Go in and play hard and play scrappy.”

Nicks, who watched ISU’s first two MVC tournament victories on TV but was unable to catch the win over Missouri State, said he’s “really happy for the kids.”

“I’m really happy for Greg Lansing,” continued Nicks, now 52 and a veteran of three NBA seasons (1980-83). “He and I kinda developed a relationship a little over a year ago.”

Other players from the most glorious season in ISU history — such as Brad Miley, Alex Gilbert, Leroy Staley and Bob Heaton — still show their support for the current Sycamores.

Miley, who lives in Terre Haute, and Gilbert, who lives in St. Louis, attended the MVC tournament together and left impressed with what they saw.

“I think they played well,” assessed Miley, who works as a sales consultant for Southern Wine and Spirits based out of Florida and attends ISU home games as a season-ticket holder. “I think the defense is what’s doing it for them lately.”

“They’re gritty,” said Gilbert, a youth counselor for the state of Missouri. “They’ve got guts. That’s what I like about ’em … and they play tough defense.”

Gilbert is known around Terre Haute for his flying-in-from-out-of-nowhere, offensive-rebound, left-hand dunk — which should go down as one of the most impressive in NCAA tournament history but never gets mentioned by national TV analysts — against first-round opponent Virginia Tech at Lawrence, Kan.

He’ll be viewing Friday’s first-round contest from a party at his brother’s house in St. Louis and he’ll be wearing a blue ISU cap with white lettering.

“The best thing I can tell [ISU players] is ‘it’s one-and-done, so put your hearts into it,'" Gilbert said. “You have to have heart when you’re in the NCAA tournament… Heart will take you a long way in the NCAA tournament.”

“If they keep defending well and make some shots, you never know,” noted Miley, who coached ISU players Jake Odum, Lucas Eitel and Logan Eitel on the Terre Haute Jammers youth basketball team a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Staley said he checked out the Sycamores’ triumph over Missouri State from a bedroom TV at his home in Pearl, Miss. Staley and Heaton were known as the “Super Subs” on the ’78-79 ISU team.

“They played a really good game,” emphasized Staley, a supervisor of recreation for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “I was impressed with the way they kept their composure.”

Having already planned a vacation trip to his hometown of Tampa, Fla., for this weekend, Staley hopes to see Friday’s action one way or another.

“The best advice I can give them is ‘play as hard as you can and take it all the way,’ ” he said.

Heaton was nicknamed “Miracle Man” for banking in a midcourt shot at the buzzer to tie the score at New Mexico State (a game the Sycamores eventually won in overtime to stay undefeated in 1979). Thirty-two years later, he’s an Indiana state representative and an ISU season-ticket holder who also attended the recent MVC tourney.

During his stay at a St. Louis motel between MVC games, he ran into Lansing by accident and offered some advice, which he thinks still applies for upcoming NCAA matchups.

“No. 1, be patient on offense,” Heaton suggested. “Just make an extra pass before you shoot … and stay within yourself. Let the game come to you.”

Heaton added that the Sycamores must avoid falling behind early against Syracuse — like they did in some of their MVC encounters — if they hope to taste NCAA success.

“Against a team like Syracuse, they can’t afford to get down 7-0,” he explained. “But anything can happen at this level. If they’re hitting their outside shots and not giving the other team second and third shots, they can pull off the upset.”

I should mention that Larry Bird — ever heard of him? — tried to call me back for this column a few days ago. Unfortunately, I was not in the office at the time.

But I strongly suspect Bird will be cheering on the Sycamores in between performing his duties as president of basketball operations for the Pacers.

David Hughes can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at david.hughes@tribstar.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.

 

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