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Mark Bennett: Sycamores' basketball success an opportunity for ISU overall

Jan. 19—Universities and colleges give young people, and frequently older folks, a chance to know more about the world.

That unique learning atmosphere can have a lifetime impact, even if the law of diminishing returns or the plot of "Canterbury Tales" slips from a graduate's memory.

Lifelong education is the bottom-line value of those places of learning, and resources from states to their public institutions of higher learning should properly fund those schools, always.

That said, sometimes colleges and universities get an assist from functions beyond the classroom.

Indiana State needs some positive connections with the world beyond its campus right now. The Sycamore men's basketball program's success can provide an assist in that department.

Coach Josh Schertz's teams won 23 games last season, and 15 of 18 so far this season. The Sycamores are tied for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. Their only losses came in stout road games at 2023 NCAA Sweet 16 team Alabama, Big Ten power Michigan State and MVC co-leader Drake.

This Sunday at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, ISU will play its fifth game on national TV at MVC rival Murray State on ESPN2. They'll play at least two more national TV games — Jan. 27 at home against Bradley on ESPN2 or ESPNU, and Feb. 3 at home vs. Drake on ESPN2.

Indeed, those are basketball moments. Still, there can be other upsides.

Schertz understands the perspective that must be kept in that situation, but also the potential pluses. He discussed the chances to play in front of a national TV audience after his Sycamores beat Missouri State 88-66 in Hulman Center on Tuesday in Hulman Center.

"The most important thing that goes on at any institution is education, academics. Without question," Schertz said. "The most visible thing that happens at any institution, except maybe for the Ivy League, is athletics. And that's the front porch, from exposure to marketability."

He's correct.

The most visible moment in college athletics comes each March in the NCAA basketball tournament. A 2008 study showed that applications to colleges rise after a school makes an appearance in the "Big Dance."

"The further you go in the tournament, the better," in terms of increased applications by prospective students and in enrollment at participating schools, the study's co-author Devin Pope told me in a 2011 interview.

Pope and his brother — both college professors and fans of their alma mater, Brigham Young University — researched data on applications and incoming students' SAT scores from the years 1983 to 2002 at 330 colleges. They also looked at those schools' success in the NCAA basketball tournament and Division I football.

They concluded that "if you make it to the NCAA Tournament, you're going to see a bump in applications," said Pope, assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Of course, the Sycamores' national TV games are regular-season matchups. The NCAA Tournament is two months away. The concept is similar, though. These public representatives of ISU are being seen by a broader audience than the usual crowds of 4,000 to 5,000-plus fans in Hulman Center or through livestreams of their games on ESPN+ and other digital platforms.

"Those are incredible opportunities to showcase our program, to showcase our university, to showcase and put Indiana State University out there," Schertz said.

"There's a lot of residual benefit from that, when you look at enrollment, when you look at fundraising — all the things that go into it," he said. "That's the most visual aspect of any institution. We understand it. It's a chance to showcase our program on a national stage. We don't take that for granted."

The university could use those jolts. Its enrollment dropped to 8,305 students last fall, down 4.1% from fall 2022 and down 36% from fall 2017's 13,045 total. In response to enrollment losses, ISU made about $12 million in budget cuts this over the course of a year, including a reorganization.

Like Schertz, the authors of the 2008 study know there's more to attracting students and support for a university than athletics.

They acknowledged that other factors often sway the interest of a would-be student, such as the campus' geographic distance from their home, financial aid availability, tuition costs and the quality of the schools.

"I don't think our paper takes away from the fact that these other things matter," Pope said in that 2011 interview.

Nonetheless, the numbers supported the assessment. According to their research, simply making the field produces an average jump of 1 percent. A trip to the Sweet Sixteen typically brought a 3-percent rise, while a Final Four appearance generated a 4- to 5-percent jump. An NCAA championship boosts applications 7 to 8 percent.

George Mason University embraced its chance, when the men's basketball team from that Washington, D.C., institution made a stunning run to the Final Four in 2006.

By the following spring, GMU applications rose 24 percent overall and 48 percent among prospective students outside Virginia. The impact of an NCAA Tournament berth took a year to manifest then, because most schools' application deadlines arrived before March Madness.

George Mason seized its rare moment by sending out a quarter-million emails to potential incoming freshmen when the Patriots reached the Sweet Sixteen, and another 250,000 after they made the Final Four. In every pregame interview, then-GMU coach Jim Larranga extolled the university's highly rated programs, such as law and psychology. On CBS, Larranga explained that the university's namesake was one of the nation's founding fathers who advocated the abolition of slavery.

The goal was "to really leverage that opportunity," GMU dean of admissions Andrew Flagel told me in a 2007 phone interview.

A lot has changed in college athletics since then, no doubt. Social media replaced emails as a primary platform to contact the outside world. The transfer portal dramatically reshaped how university athletic programs are built, as has the Name Image Likeness (or NIL) rules. And these upcoming games aren't "Big Dance" moments.

Still, more eyes are seeing Indiana State University through the Sycamores' nationally televised games. That can be a plus, if other steps needed for ISU to revive its enrollment and niche in the state's menu of colleges are taken.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.