Season Finale: Sycamores seek to ride off into sunset in NIT Final

Apr. 3—A team bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference has been dumped by Indiana State — SMU.

One from the Big Ten — Minnesota — was sent packing.

Cincinnati, a squad from the nation's perceived best conference by pundits and metrics (Big 12) was ousted in the NIT quarterfinals by the Sycamores.

And Tuesday night, Indiana State basketball put up 100 points on a PAC-12 foe headed to, again, the Big 12 — Utah.

The first three matchups marked sellouts at Hulman Center for a program starved for postseason success.

"It's been amazing," said sophomore Robbie Avila, who has become must-see viewing on television sets across America with his unique bag of offensive skills.

"This entire run from starting at the Hulman Center, those three games have been sellout crowds. It's been a lot of fun coming into Hinkle and seeing a sea of blue. Utah is a really good team, and it was a great game, but to continue to play in front of our fans like that — it's a blessing.

On Tuesday, the lion's share of Indianapolis' Hinkle Fieldhouse was Sycamore blue. A similar scene is anticipated Thursday for the fifth and final helping of ISU's tourney run — Seton Hall (24-12) of the Big East, No. 67 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, rankings.

The Sycamores (32-6) have consistently won in 2023-24: 10 of their past 11 and stretches of nine- and 10-game win streaks at different points.

The winning can't go past Thursday, the NIT championship game at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

Avila is averaging 17.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and four assists to fuel a well-oiled machine looking for an unprecedented trophy.

ISU's NCAA Division I history with postseason eligibility dates back to 1977-78, when the NCAA field was 32 teams and the NIT was even more picky with just 16 squads getting an invite.

That strong squad featuring Larry Bird didn't get to the Big Dance following a Missouri Valley tourney loss to top-seeded Creighton, 54-52. The team later won the school's only NIT game before this year.

In 1978-79, the program bounced back by winning ISU's next 33 games and nearly sweeping the field, but coming up short against Michigan State and Earvin "Magic" Johnson in the national title game.

This ISU team will log five more games than the 1978-79 squad. With a win in the NIT final, it would match the 33 victories of that esteemed group.

"It's a group that on its own accord is really good, but when you look at it, you know, the sum of this group is much greater than the individual parts because everybody has bought into the right things," said ISU coach Josh Schertz.

"It's almost, in an era of NIL and transfer portal, sadly a throwback team — but that's what it feels like, a throwback to the old days. We don't want this ride to end; let's everybody put aside everything.

"You could see the bench guys aren't playing," he added.

He referenced the second man off the bench, sixth-year senior Jake Wolfe, who has a chance to win his 10th NIT game against Seton Hall. Wolfe appeared in the 2019 final with Lipscomb University, and he earned a victory in the tourney last year with Morehead State.

Wolfe has played in 172 games, which is tied for second all-time in the NCAA, according to

"Jake Wolfe started 100 games in his career; he's not playing," Schertz said. "He's into the game. [Junior] Aaron Gray had multiple 30-point games in Division I, and has not taken his jersey off — put his jersey on in I don't know how many games. He's over there living and dying with every possession.

"The quality and character of this team is not just the guys you see, but it's the unseen, and it's really from guy 1 to 15. ... I've never had a more fun year coaching than I have," Schertz added. "It's been truly an honor to come to work with these guys every single day."

The ISU fanatics that stuffed Hinkle to the rafters traveled to Indianapolis in hopes of seeing another Missouri Valley outfit reign in the NIT.

Former MVC member Wichita State did it in 2011. Valparaiso finished runner-up in 2016, and in 2018 Valpo began competing in the MVC.

"When you [are] on the court you feel it more," Larry said. "You feel that energy coming from the fans. We heard them all game. They were ready to go just like us."

The Pirates, out of Newark, N.J., are back in the NIT championship, which they won in 1953. This year, they knocked off Saint Joseph's, North Texas, UNLV and Georgia.

Seton Hall, which is averaging 80.5 points in the tourney, raced out to an 18-3 lead and nearly blew the Georgia Bulldogs out of the water in Tuesday's second semifinal.

The Pirates won 84-67 as senior Dre Davis, a 2020 Lawrence Central High School alumnus, dropped 19 points in his best showing of the tourney.

Senior Al-Amir Dawes recorded 20 points in the title bout in his fourth time reaching 20 points in this postseason.

Seton Hall needed overtime to defeat St. Joe's at home in the opening round.

The Sycamores haven't had any last-second drama in the tournament, but they did have to erase a double-digit, second-half deficit against SMU in the first round.

Ryan Conwell was in overdrive then and since the middle of February and has not shown any signs of wear and tear.

He bumped his stats up to 16.9 points per game, 5.6 boards and 2.4 assists on the year.

He's shooting a scorching 41.7% from long range, and 41 of 86 (47.6%) in the past 12 games.

Conwell described everything occurring around the program as a gift from above.

"It's a blessing," he said. "It's something I've never really experienced before and something I don't take for granted. Just having all those people come in and support us, we feed off that energy as well. So, just playing in front of a fan base like that is, you know, nothing short of a blessing."

Junior guard Julian Larry said everyone around him in the department has helped make this possible.

"It's just special," Larry said. "It's just a bunch of special dudes coming together with special coaches, actually a special organization, everybody in organization does a lot for us."

All things must come to an end. For this group, it will be Thursday.

And only time will tell if the core of five starters will return to Terre Haute amid an age of college athletics that includes NIL and the transfer portal.

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