Hunter Tickel: BLUE & WHITE VIEW: Magnificent March a prelude to Aesthetic April?

Mar. 27—In the final pregame speech in the classic film "Hoosiers," Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman) delivers a somber and short-winded message ahead of his squad's state championship game.

For the first time in that 1986 flick, the state of Indiana high school players weigh in for the final pregame moments of the postseason.

"Let's win this game for all the small schools that never had the chance to get here," Merle Webb chimed in a statement laced with sincerity etched all over his demeanor.

Is the Indiana State men's basketball squad akin to that 1954 Milan state championship team? Is there a Jimmy Chitwood (Bobby Plump) donning powder Blue?

If I'm boxed into one word, then "Yes" ... and here's why:

—2023-24 Sycamores framing — Let me start by weaving this.

The Sycamores (31-6) started the year with immense success and attractive hoops.

Fast forward to when the bell tolled during crunch time in March, this ISU contingent from the coaching staff down to the walk-ons have inked a legacy.

This month began with a 12-point win over Murray State to cut down the nylon inside Hulman Center for just its third Missouri Valley Conference regular-season crown.

In St. Louis at Arch Madness, ISU moved through Missouri State and Northern Iowa with relative ease to slide into the title game.

A mad dash spearheaded by junior Isaiah Swope brought ISU a second-half lead after trailing by 18. Then, Drake's Tucker DeVries and coach Darian DeVries, who is now bound for West Virginia, put the finishing touches on back-to-back titles.

Swope's-near Big Dance clinching heroics brings me to my next point.

—No Jimmy Chitwood — ISU doesn't have bona fide superstars; they have several.

Sophomore Ryan Conwell leads this list because of his savviness and he's multifaceted.

He's followed by sophomore Robbie Avila, who is a nightmare matchup and will come at teams with everything in the kitchen sink in terms of offensive tools.

And Swope is the best space creator off the dribble and makes the toughest shot-maker.

Conwell is shooting 36 of 73 from long range in his past 11 games, but he's not simply a catch-and-shoot spot-up sniper. He's a silky-suave slasher.

He has a nose for the goal, especially when ISU's horses get warmed up, is clinical.

ISU struck a match by getting out and running to erase an eight-point closing-half margin that lit Cincinnati ablaze in an 85-81.

Swope was at the heart of this operation.

ISU poured in 19 points on the break with lethal outlets.

ISU didn't trail in Tuesday's quarterfinal the rest of the way. ISU finished with 53 second-half points.

"They are a terrific passing team, a terrific offensive team, a terrific 3-point shooting team," UC coach Wes Miller said. "That was a big thing for us, trying to get back and get our defense set. I thought we did an excellent job of that in the first half. They got some opportunities in the second half. They were able to capitalize on that."

Outside of these usual suspects, ISU boasts three other scores and playmakers in junior Julian Larry and junior Jayson Kent.

Four Sycamores have dropped at least 27 points this year and a trio have hit the 30-point threshold in a game.

And senior Xavier Bledson's high-basketball IQ has balanced the end of the rotation. He was in the thick of the playmaking as ISU dominated the Bearcats 19-3 in the open floor in the closing half to send UC packing in the NIT.

In one stroke of skill, Bledson flung a cross near midcourt at the left sideline diagonally to Larry on the right side of the rim in stride for an and-one layin with 8:01 left to push to lead 69-65.

"It was me and Robbie fighting for the rebound," Bledson said. "And I [saw Julian Larry] as soon as I grabbed it. It was going regardless and I saw 'Ju' out of the corner of my eye and threw it. He made a play."

Bledson is capable of making timely plays or logging extensive workloads to pick up the slack when teammates don't have a hot hand.

—Sitting one out — In keeping Indiana State separate from the Field of 68, the Trees were limited by the committee. The Sycamores won too many games during the league season and nonconference slate to not get an invite to the Field of 68.

The Sycamores won 82% of their games overall and the same clip for Valley games.

But that's not an argument I'm here for, not to mention I'm biased since I cover this beat.

The way to advance this statement is by talking about the present. ISU has gone 6-1 in March, that's with an outright title on the line, three games in the MVC tourney and three games in the NIT against some fellow bubble competition.

I can't say I've seen much of a better March for ISU in its 46 years of being a Division I program.

But if the consolation to the Ball, that is March Madness, is a notch below it, then maybe the selection committee fumbled and created a loophole that could lead to change.

The NET rankings, which steer the committee for selections, have only been around for five years and it already appears broken.

There are glitches and ways of beating the system. But I'd argue that the Sycamores' run to the NIT Final Four, which coincidentally is at Hinkle Fieldhouse, site of where the "Hoosiers" prep championship game was filmed, is bringing more recognition to the program than a one-and-done scenario for the Sycamores in the NCAA tournament.

How the Sycamores stood on business against Atlantic Coast Conference-bound SMU, Big Ten's Minnesota and the Big 12's Cincinnati is the validation this program needed and the shot of confidence the Blue and White needed — all five starters have eligibility remaining.

"It's just showing us that we can play basketball," Bledson said. "Knowing that we didn't get in the tournament and not holding it against [the selection committee], but still playing the game of basketball. We still get another chance to play in March. That honestly is what it's about. A lot of teams are at home chilling right now."

I think it's safe to say, though it did occur in 1978-79 on a squad led by Larry Bird, that the Sycamores weren't likely to have four games in the offing against Power 6 teams.

—Run it back — Another factor in all of this is reports nationally by ESPN that third-year ISU coach Josh Schertz is being targeted by other programs.

It prompted the ISU boss to declare that he wouldn't be commenting on his future until after the postseason concludes.

There are a lot of "What ifs" flying around out there on websites and social media that are uninformed. Folks, like I was taught in elementary school in the early 2000s, Google is not a source. That is why we painstakingly had to learn how to vet educational sources and learn how to write bibliographies to give credit.

The Internet was considered wildly inaccurate.

Unfortunately, speculation and click bait are now driven by unprovable points and discussion. As a reporter, it's ethical and it goes without saying what I report is factual. That's something painted on my function as a beat writer.

When this storybook season comes to a conclusion either Tuesday or Thursday in the first week of April, the questions surrounding whether this team will be back with the core five and Schertz will be asked.

In dealing with this kind of subject matter, I will not be using unnamed sources.

—One of the little guys — In the meantime, like the high school hoops squad of "Hickory," ISU fits the billing of a non-power program.

The jump the program has made in home attendance in three years with Schertz is impressive, 2,990; 3,866 and 6,054 this year with six sellouts with crowds over 8,000.

"It's been like this much of the season, so it's not like this is an anomaly," Schertz said. "It has been that electric, that packed this year. It's been one of the best environments in college basketball and it's a hard place to come play. People always wonder why Power 6 schools don't come here — now people know why Power 6 schools don't come here. That's what it is. When you get into these scheduling debates, you're not going to get these games. It's not like I'm bashing the Power 6. It doesn't make sense for them to play these games the way the system is set up. They don't want to come on the road and lose to Indiana State."

In 17 games this year, ISU went 16-1 with 102, 929 filing into Hulman Center, in a stadium that has been stuffed in large part to Schertz's mastery on the sideline since getting to Terre Haute.

"We played in some wild arenas this year," Miller said. "We played all over the Big 12. We have a wild arena that brings it every night. So I wouldn't say it shocked us in any way, but it was a really nice environment here, really nice here. And I'm happy for Indiana State, for Terre Haute and for Josh and this group."

The next step is the Sycamores getting their slice of the pie.

The Sycamores are validating the program with this run and even more impressive than the winning has been the fortitude of this squad.

This bunch truly followed Schertz's lead despite the debilitating news that they were going to get the at-bat to see if the tourney Cinderella slipper fit. They haven't pouted and kept it pushing.

It worked. Schertz said ISU will likely have more neutral-site opportunities to pick up more quality wins. The Field of 68 in-season tourney, another MTE and maybe even playing Butler in Indianapolis. He pointed out that last year a squad like Florida Atlantic rode a Final Four trip at the NCAA tournament to more high-profile games on national TV.

The team may not be rewarded for not flinching despite being dropped from this March Madness but it does bode well for its character and being battle-tested in the future.

The result wasn't what this group envisioned in the fall but sometimes that's the flow in sports.

Or in the Hoosier State.

"If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we're gonna be winners," Dale said in "Hoosiers."

Hickory got a winner that year. Terre Haute could have another one in the same facility.

Hunter Tickel can be reached at or on Twitter: @tribstarhunter.