NIT Goals: Indiana State stepping into 'College Basketball's Cathedral' for tourney semis

Mar. 29—In roughly three days, the Indiana State men's basketball National Invitation Tournament fairytale and robust season ensue in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Coach Josh Schertz dubs it "College Basketball's Cathedral" — an arena that goes back to 1928.

The Sycamores (31-6) are in the semifinal stage and on the brink of the school's inaugural NIT title game.

ISU, who has a NET of 28, will play No. 48 Utah (22-14) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN, and the nightcap of the doubleheader is Seton Hall against Georgia.

Associate coach Matthew Graves has sat on both benches on the Butler University sideline as an assistant with the Bulldogs and with Xavier.

He got a signal at Tuesday's final horn — a 85-81 quarterfinal win over Cincinnati — of the kind of reception he can expect in Indianapolis.

"This time is unique and different," Graves said. "You are playing the final four of the NIT. You are playing for a championship. As soon as we won [against] Cincinnati, one of my good friends sent me a text, a screenshot of his ticket where he was going to be sitting for the semifinal game."

Graves gave a vivid description of the ambience in the building.

"Before you even walk into the building, you pull up and it's just an iconic site," he said. "Just being able to walk in there and thinking about all the great players and teams that have played in there. Not just at the college level but high school players that have been through there. They used to host different rounds of the state tournament and the championship in that building. Just the history brings a great aura to being there."

"It is the best shooting gym in the country by far," Graves said. "It's just got a great feel. The floor is soft, it's raised up, the backdrop is terrific. It is 1,000% a shooter's gym.

"When you walk in, the [court] is up on a box spring. It feels great on your legs. It just has a little extra bounce to it. That's the one thing you never forget — how soft that floor is."

Renovations have been done to that building, Graves said he remembers summers when the building in the past didn't have air conditioning.

It's not summer — it's spring and the Trees are playing deep into it.

"It's an incredible opportunity, it's a blessing, I never would've thought I would be playing college basketball in April," Avila said.

—Money talks — On Friday, the semifinal round and championship game at Hinkle Fieldhouse were announced as sellouts by the NIT. The ISU faithful are expected to jam up the joint.

For as much noise as Indiana State has elicited in a storybook year, at this juncture in the year, there's just as much occurring for this national headline-grabbing squad.

Amid an age rampant with outside noise from the transfer portal, NIL attention from the Sycamores' best season since 1978-79, which is putting the area on the map nationally and constant chatter about Schertz's job status, very little has slipped into a stoic psyche in the Trees locker room.

"That's what great teams do," Graves said. "Great teams can lock in and focus and not [gotten] overwhelmed by all the outside noise. They understand what's at stake. They want to win a championship and they are playing with a chip on their shoulder because they felt like they should have been in the NCAA tournament."

Graves voiced the idiom that at the moment: "actions speak louder than words."

"It's a balance at this point, they want to really focus on proving everyone wrong," Graves said. "That's really the focus."

The ISU basketball team has already been highlighted in a plethora of national publications and has been referenced on TV galore by personalities like Stephen Colbert, Pat McAfee, Michael Wilbon, Doug Gottlieb, Jay Bilas and Joe Rogan.

"What a great thing for not only Terre Haute, Indiana State University but the entire Wabash Valley community, it's really shed a light on everything," Graves said. "The players have done a great job embracing that and have really opened up America to Terre Haute, Ind., and Indiana State University."

Schertz said the added attention and bump in wins the past two years has raised the value of the players and coaching staff.

"With success everything changes, the cost of doing business goes up for everybody," Schertz said. "That's part of success, notoriety, exposure, other opportunities present themselves whether that's for players or coaches or whatever the case may be. It could be inside the collective or outside the collective."

With this inertia has come a push to capitalize on the moment in Terre Haute.

This flow isn't unique to the school, it's occurring at programs throughout the United States, especially by mid-majors making waves like the Oakland men's basketball squad in Rochester, Mich., that moved ample program T-shirts when they upset Kentucky.

Avila, who has drawn the most attention from fanfare this year locally and on social media, said the shine and attention is owed to his teammates too.

Avila, who has put out a line of T-shirts, some of which were purchased by McAfee, he said.

"I think they are all awesome," Avila said. "The ones I got are pretty cool t-shirts, just another way to kind of use my image to make a little money in college. Everybody seems to be enjoying the shirts that I put out there. I use some of the nicknames to bring it attention."

Avila is still searching for a deal for his spectacles or goggles he wears on the hardwood. He said brands like Oakley and Rec Specs have reached out.

"I've had a couple companies reach out but I haven't signed anything yet," Avila said. "It's all just in the works."

In anticipation of juggling all these arrangements this year, Avila got an agent the previous summer. His representation is from his home city of Chicago, which initially reached out to Schertz on his behalf.

Avila also has a mural at Baesler's in town.

Avila said the rest of the starting five, plus senior Xavier Bledson and freshman Eli Shetler also have a T-shirt.

And junior Isaiah Swope banked NIL with Culver's in his hometown of Newburgh and Terre Haute, Avila and Schertz said.

Other members have had ads and sponsored posts on Instagram.

The business of NIL is faintly in the rear-view mirror for this mix.

"I think it's just everybody gets it," Avila said. "I don't think we have to have a message because everybody's priorities are right."