Mark Bennett: ISU men's hoops success inspires new Sycamore women's coach

May 10—Sitting among a shoulder-to-shoulder capacity crowd in Indianapolis' Hinkle Fieldhouse on April 2 was Marc Mitchell, watching men's college basketball's most captivating postseason mid-major team — the Indiana State Sycamores.

He got a glimpse of his future community's potential.

That night, ISU beat much taller Utah 100-90 in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

Afterward, Seton Hall routed Georgia to set up an April 4 NIT Final between the Sycamores and Pirates. Seton Hall rallied to beat ISU 79-77 in that finale, as the Sycamores finished an epic 32-7 season.

Mitchell attended the NIT semifinals to support two former colleagues — Seton Hall's athletic director Bryan Felt and men's head basketball coach Shaheen Holloway.

Both Felt and Holloway had been in those same roles a few years earlier at St. Peter's University, when Mitchell coached St. Peter's women's basketball program in New Jersey.

So, before Mitchell cheered on his friends' Seton Hall team in the NIT semifinal nightcap at Hinkle, he saw the sea of ISU blue backing the Sycamores vs. Utah. "I saw how the gym was packed with Indiana State fans," Mitchell recalled Friday morning.

The Elizabeth, New Jersey, native also concluded the NCAA Tournament shouldn't have overlooked the Sycamores. "As an outsider looking in, I thought they should've been in the NCAA Tournament," Mitchell said.

Mitchell had no idea, at that point, that five weeks later he'd become the new ISU women's basketball coach. The exploits of last season's Sycamore men's team, and the Larry Bird-led 1978-79 team, were Mitchell's only exposures to Indiana State University.

"That's the extent of what I knew about them, at Indiana State," he said.

Indiana State interim Athletic Director Angie Lansing announced Friday that Mitchell would be the next Sycamore women's coach. He's got an impressive track record.

His 15-year head coaching career includes winning a NCAA Division III national championship at Fairleigh Dickinson-Florham University in 2014. His Devils finished that season 33-0. That's the same record Bird and the '78-79 Sycamores had going into the NCAA Final against Michigan State, but let's not digress. Mitchell prepped for college head coaching by serving as an assistant for two seasons at two different colleges, and teaching and coaching the girls basketball program at his high school alma mater in Elizabeth.

In nine seasons at FDU-Florham, Mitchell's teams compiled a cumulative 187-67 record, a .736 winning percentage, and six NCAA Tournament appearances. He's the university's all-time winningest coach.

Mitchell moved on to the Division I ranks at St. Peter's, facing a difficult task. The Peacocks women had won just 19 of 151 games through the previous five seasons. His four-season record of 41-78 at St. Peter's was a marked improvement. His 2020-21 team gave the program its first winning record in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since 2008-09, and its first MAAC Tournament title game appearance in two decades.

Winning happened at U of Indy, too. The Greyhounds finished 18-12 overall and 13-7 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, before going 13-15 and 10-12 last season.

Now, Mitchell takes over an ISU program made progress is previous coach Chad Killinger's three seasons, but still struggled to a 33-60 cumulative mark. Killinger stepped down last month. Interim head coach Deidra Johnson admirably guided the Sycamores through much of last season, after Killinger was sidelined for undisclosed health reasons.

ISU's last steady success came in former coach Teri Moren's four seasons, when the Sycamores won 15 games or more each year. Moren, notably, has since turned Indiana University into a national powerhouse. Longtime ISU women's fans, no doubt, recall the program's heyday under former coach Jim Wiedie, when greats such as Melanie Boeglin made the Sycamores a Missouri Valley Conference contender. Wiedie's teams drew 2,000 or more loyalists to Hulman Center for most games then.

Mitchell saw firsthand the passionate crowd from Terre Haute for ISU's men's game vs. Utah in Indianapolis last month.

"I just think there's a tremendous fan base there," Mitchell said. "I think we have to get the program together and put a team on the floor that people are excited to see.

"Just give us a little time, and I think we'll have that," he added.

Mitchell's first order of business is to connect with the potential returnees on his roster for next season. From last season's 11-21 team, only two players have exhausted their college eligibility — forward Chelsea Cain and guard Ella Sawyer. Two seniors, Kiley Bess and Mya Glanton, have won season of eligibility remaining, if they choose to play. The remaining players would be capable of returning for the 2024-25 season.

"I want to reach out to the current players who are there now to see if they have any intention of staying, and seeing who wants to stay and who wants to leave," Mitchell said.

Assembling that roster will be trickier than a usual season. With Mitchell taking over in the second week of May, players from around the country who've entered the NCAA transfer portal have mostly all chosen a destination. "It's very late," Mitchell said.

"So this year is going to be a struggle, but next year, I assure you, we'll be in the transfer portal early," he added.

The portal helped former ISU men's coach Josh Schertz build last season's memorable team, and is a prime tool for new ISU men's coach Matthew Graves to restock that program.

Mitchell and the Sycamore women could be on an upward climb, too.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or