Mark Bennett: Sycamore basketball 'fever' has ISU athletics, campus, beyond buzzing

Feb. 1—The college basketball world's radar has picked up Indiana State's signal before in the 21st century.

In the 1999-2000 and 2001-01 seasons, Sycamore teams beat the IU Hoosiers, made two NCAA Tournaments and ousted No. 4-seed Oklahoma in the Big Dance. The 2011 team won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and gave ISU its fourth NCAA berth in the school's NCAA Division I era.

Angie Lansing remembers those seasons. She's the ISU interim athletic director with 17 years of experience in the university's athletic administration, and an ISU Athletics Hall of Famer as a former Sycamore track and cross country great.

"In my time here, we've obviously had the two [earlier] very successful times," Lansing said Thursday.

But ...

"I can't say I've experienced the ticket fever we're experiencing now," Lansing added.

Coach Josh Schertz and the 2023-24 Sycamores played in a sold-out Hulman Center last Saturday and beat the Missouri Valley's then-second-place team, Bradley, in overtime.

The Sycamores' next home game is Saturday against the current MVC second-place Drake Bulldogs. As early as last Sunday, folks in the ISU Athletic Department sensed the Drake game also would sell out. And it did.

The attraction is Schertz's team, with its sharpshooting, fluid-moving offense and hustling, disruptive defense. "The success of the team — obviously that's created a lot of interest in attendance at the games, which is a great thing," Lansing said.

The Sycamores sport records of 19-3 overall and 10-1 in the MVC. They've received votes in the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches polls — ISU's first poll votes since the 2012-13 season. National publications like Sports Illustrated and The Athletic have written about ISU and Schertz.

Now, ISU will face Drake — the only Valley team that's beaten the Sycamores this season — in front of another sellout crowd in Hulman Center at 6 p.m. Saturday. ESPN2 will air the game, ISU's fifth national TV appearance this season.

"It's been really exciting," Lansing said. "It's also been really busy."

The heightened ticket demand, resulting in a sellout situation for the Bradley game, prompted the athletic department to make adjustments. Lansing's staff planned to do promotions for tickets to the Drake game, but before that could commence, fans had purchased all but a few of those tickets by last Sunday.

"So that's certainly a situation we haven't been in for awhile," Lansing explained. "It's just been really busy during the week for our staff, as far as the requests that have been coming in and trying to manage that and making sure we can get as many people into the games as want to be there."

At the Bradley game, some of the 1,000 seats ISU reserves for students — who get in free with a student ID — weren't used. For this Saturday's Drake game, ISU asked students to claim a free ticket, with their student ID. More than 800 did so this week. "So, they can still get in for free; we just created another step, so we can make sure of how many students are going to be at the game," Lansing said. That allows potentially unused student seats to be offered to the general public.

ISU has also encouraged any season-ticketholders unable to attend to offer those to other fans, Lansing said.

"The Forest" — a seating sector for students — has seen its membership grow to more than 1,200. Campus drives by her department for "Forest" membership have been ongoing, along with efforts by the ISU Spirit Squad and its coach Tammy Shike. "That's really exciting, too," Lansing said.

That $5-a-year fee gives members access to the first-come, first-served section of 250 seats behind the south-end basket at Hulman Center.

Likewise, Lansing said sales have jumped for Sycamore apparel at campus and community outlets. ISU fan buses through Turner Coaches fill up for road games. Concession sales in Hulman Center are up. More companies are sponsoring promotions at the games.

Making the most of the situation requires teamwork.

"It's putting our best foot forward to make sure we do well with all of these things, and we have people wanting to come back," Lansing said.

"Certainly, we do know it's about the student-athletes and this team," she added.

Her own team is playing shorthanded. Since 2016, Lansing's job has been senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator. After former Athletic Director Sherard Clinkscales abruptly departed his job on Dec. 31 — for reasons ISU has described only as "to pursue other opportunities" — Lansing was named interim athletic director. She filled the interim AD role also in 2016, prior to Clinkscales' hiring.

Of the shorthanded situation, Lansing said, "It's just been a lot busier. Most of it's been making sure we're communicating well and communicating across campus well, because we're certainly not doing this alone."

ISU has not set a timeline for replacing Clinkscales permanently.

"At this time, we are just in the planning phase. Indiana State University's focus is on cheering Sycamore Athletics in all of their successes," Zeke Torres, ISU associate director of communications in the Office of the President, said by email Thursday. ISU President Deborah Curtis is retiring effective June 30 — one year earlier than her contract had called for — under an agreement approved by the university's board on Dec. 15, 2023.

Lansing, now 48, declined to comment on whether she'll be a candidate for the permanent AD job. She did say she expects to serve in the interim role until at least the end of ISU's fiscal year, which ends in June, and somewhat beyond that.

In terms of key athletic department jobs, fans in the community want to see Schertz continue on as Sycamore coach for at least several more seasons, fearing some struggling, high-major NCAA Division I program could lure him away. ISU extended Schertz's contract last fall through the 2027-28 season. Schertz will receive — including media payments and retention compensation — a total of $365,000 per year, previously $300,000 per year, the Tribune-Star reported in October.

"In terms of coaches and staff in general, you always want to hang on to good coaches and staff," Lansing said. To do that, "we do our best to make sure we have the culture and atmosphere that they want to be a part of."

Schertz's teams climbed from an 11-20 record his first ISU season in 2021-22 — after building a Division II powerhouse from the ground up at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee — to marks of 23-13 last season and now 19-3 so far this season. His record speaks for itself, Lansing said.

"I think that goes without saying, the success that he's had in his time here," she said. "It's happened quickly, and a lot of that's been getting the right student-athletes in his system. And the student-athletes enjoy being around each other and the coaches and the team."

Fans are enjoying seeing it all happen. The impact spills beyond Hulman Center.

"Obviously, there's been a lot of activity and vibrance in the restaurants downtown before and after the games," Lansing said.

Cheyne O'Laughlin can attest to that. The owner of the Terminal Public House restaurant on Wabash Avenue, just south of Hulman Center, adds extra bartenders and servers on game days, especially for Saturday games. The influx of diners is so strong the waiting list can stretch to an hour or more, he said. The place is packed.

"Then there's this mass exodus right before tipoff" as game-goers head to Hulman Center, O'Laughlin said. "And we all sit down and catch our breath and wait. And then we kind of do it all again after the game."

He expects Saturday — when a pregame "Rally in the Valley" starts at 3 p.m. in the Terminal parking lot at Ninth and Wabash, with a beer garden and family-friendly activities — "to be pretty crazy."

"It's a testament to the fever that's kind of caught on," O'Laughlin said.

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