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Bubble bursts: Sycamores miss out on NCAA; to host SMU in NIT

Mar. 17—The 2024 NCAA men's basketball Selection Sunday television show came and passed Sunday with Indiana State not having its name called. The Sycamores aren't in this year's NCAA Tournament field.

But they will be a No. 1 seed in the second-tier National Invitation Tournament. ISU plays host to SMU (20-12) in the first round of the NIT at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Hulman Center. (It will be livestreamed on ESPN+.) The winner of that game plays the winner of Tuesday's 9 p.m. first-round NIT game between Butler, the four-seed, and Minnesota.

No. 2-seeded Cincinnati and third-seeded Bradley of the Missouri Valley Conference are also in ISU's NIT bracket. Cincinnati plays San Francisco in the first round at 9 p.m. Wednesday, while Bradley plays former MVC team Loyola Chicago at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Joining ISU as the NIT's other No. 1 seeds in the 32-team tourney are Seton Hall, Wake Forest and Villanova.

The NIT selections were announced after the NCAA picks. The NIT's semifinal and final rounds are April 2 and 4, respectively, in Hinkle Fieldhouse at Indianapolis. First-round games are Tuesday and Wednesday at campus sites, as are second-round games March 23 and 24 and quarterfinal games March 26 and 27.

ISU, with a 28-6 season record, now has the distinction of being the team with the best NET ranking (28) ever to be passed over by the NCAA, replacing North Carolina State, which was left out in 2019 despite a No. 33 rank. The NET is the main tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee to pick the field of 68 teams. This ranking system was established in 2018-19.

"So it's beyond disappointing," third-year Sycamore coach Josh Schertz told The Associated Press. "We've got to get up tomorrow and get ready for what's next."

The committee was stationed in Carmel, not far from the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. The committee revealed that the final four squads taken into the field were Boise State, Colorado, Virginia and Colorado State.

The Sycamores were listed with Oklahoma, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh as the four teams that narrowly missed the field.

ISU missed locking in an automatic berth by losing 84-80 to second-seeded Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game on March 10 in St. Louis, where the Sycamores were the top seed after winning the MVC's regular-season title.

The committee said after the field was revealed there were five expected bids snatched by other teams selected instead. Those "stolen" bids kept ISU, Oklahoma, Seton Hall and Pitt from dancing, not four like pundits thought.

It was revealed that the group of stealers included New Mexico, which won the Mountain West Conference; North Carolina State, winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference; and Oregon, which won the Pacific-12; as well as two mid-major teams, Florida Atlantic and Dayton, which were selected but didn't win their conference tourneys in the American Athletic and Atlantic 10, respectively.

Tasked with separating a historically loaded batch of bubble teams, the committee revealed ISU's tiebreaker that left them out of the Big Dance.

"They had a magnificent season," Charles McClelland, chairperson and Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner, said. "They had great metrics, but when you start to look at their nonconference and the games they played outside of conference, that was something we had to take a look at.

"Again, under normal circumstances, with those additional bids, they would have been in," McClelland said. "As [CBS analyst] Clark [Kellogg] said earlier, when you start splitting hairs, you have to look at something, you have to find something. And that's ultimately why they were not in the field."

ISU won 15 of 20 games away from Hulman Center. Their non-Missouri Valley games included losses at the No. 9 NET-ranked team, Alabama of the SEC, and No. 24 Michigan State of the Big Ten.

At home, the Sycamores faced No. 360 IUPUI, Ball State (258), Tennessee State (282), Northern Illinois (298), Southern Indiana (329), and their strongest foe in ISU's appearance in an in-season tournament — November's Ball Dawgs Classic in Nevada — was No. 130 Toledo, while the other two squads had 200-plus NET ranks.

No. 22 New Mexico was in the Ball Dawgs Classic but didn't play ISU in the six-team field. The Thanksgiving tourney outside of Las Vegas featured three games for each school, and both the UNM Lobos and Sycamores went 3-0.

ISU also faced non-Division I NAIA squad St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

The Sycamores won the school's third regular season Valley title.

Now in the NIT, ISU will face a SMU team that has its sixth postseason berth in the past 11 seasons, including two NCAA bids and four NITs, according to SMU Athletics. The Mustangs made a run to the 2014 NIT championship game, were a No. 3 seed in the 16-team 2021 NIT field and were a No. 1 seed in the 2022 NIT.

SMU had an 11-7 record in American Athletic Conference play. The Mustangs, under second-year coach Rob Lanier, are led by 6-foot-5 guard Zhuric Phelps at 14.7 points per game, and 6-4 guard Chuck Harris at 13.2.

For ISU, it's been a season of superlatives in Terre Haute. ISU earned a bevy of honors at the Valley league banquet in St. Louis. Schertz claimed Coach of the Year; sophomore Ryan Conwell won Newcomer of the Year, second team All-MVC and earned an all-tourney nod as the team finished second; sophomore Robbie Avila earned first-team All-MVC and all-tourney team; juniors Jayson Kent and Isaiah Swope earned second-team All-MVC honors; junior Julian Larry was named to the All-MVC third team and senior Xavier Bledson won the conference's Sixth Man of the Year.

Kent and Larry were named to the All-Defensive Team.

Schertz led Indiana State to one of the best seasons since the fabled 1978-79 team. The 28 wins are the second-most in program history (the '78-79 squad won 33), and the 17 league wins are a program record. For the first time since the '78-79 season, the Trees found themselves among the top 25 in the nation, ranking No. 23 in the AP Top 25 and No. 24 in the USA Today Sports Coaches poll.

Hunter Tickel can be reached at hunter.tickel@tribstar.com or on Twitter: @tribstarhunter.