It’s not quite the same as the days of Larry Bird, but there is some reason for excitement in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The Indiana State Sycamores, coming off a thrilling buzzer-beater win over Creighton on Sunday, currently sit in a second-place tie with Wichita State at a record of 6-1 in the Missouri Valley conference. Each sits one game behind Missouri State, who is currently undefeated in the league at 7-0.
With the two games they have on the schedule this week, the Sycamores will have a chance to establish themselves as a legitimate contender for the Missouri Valley Conference title this season.
On Wednesday, the Sycamores will play host to Missouri State. With a win, they would move into a tie with the Bears as leaders of the MVC. They will follow that game with a tough road trip to Wichita, where they will face the Shockers.
Win or lose, Indiana State is in territory they have been nowhere near for the past decade.
The last time the Sycamores made the NCAA Tournament was in 2001. It was their second consecutive trip to the tournament. As a 13 seed, they pulled off a first-round upset over Oklahoma. They went on to lose to Gonzaga, a 12 seed that was still in the process of earning national respectability, in the second round.
After that season, the bottom fell out quickly for Indiana State.
The next season, the Sycamores won just five games overall. The next season, they finished 7-24. Between those two seasons (2001-02 and 2002-03), they won a combined five conference games, finishing in last place both years.
While the team’s win total improved slightly for five straight seasons (nine wins in ’03-04; 11 in ’04-05; and 13 in ’05-06), the Sycamores were still miles away from the top tier of the conference. Between 2004 and 2007, the highest they managed to finish in the league was a tie for eighth place.
During those years, the competitiveness and depth of the MVC was being recognized on the national stage. The league was a source for multiple NCAA at-large bids—Southern Illinois earned at-large berths in ’04 and ’05; Northern Iowa in ’05 and ’06; Wichita State and Bradley in ’06.
Indiana State, however, was simply a very insignificant part of the resumes of each of those teams who were fighting over those NCAA at-large bids. Losing to the Sycamores at that time may in fact have ruined a team’s season.
The past three seasons were a little better for Indiana State. They posted an 8-10 conference record in 2008, followed by 7-11 in 2009. Last year, the Sycamores managed to finally crawl back to the .500 mark at 9-9, ending an eight-year streak of losing seasons, both in conference and overall.
Who will win the Missouri Valley conference championship (and NCAA automatic bid) this season?
Last year’s fifth place finish in the MVC created just a little sliver of hope for this season —that maybe Indiana State could compete for a conference championship, and earn their first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years.
The first sign of this came in a hard-fought struggle against Purdue in December, in which the Sycamores trailed by only two points with less than eight minutes to play, before losing 65-52. Since then, they have won six of seven conference games. This includes an impressive 70-45 rout of Northern Iowa, last year’s league champion and eventual winner over top-seeded Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
While the Sycamores’ early success in conference play is a legitimate sign of optimism, this team has yet to face a true test against one of the league title contenders—Missouri State and Wichita State. Nor have they yet to play in one of the more intimidating road environments of the league, such as Creighton, Northern Iowa or Southern Illinois.
There are plenty of opportunities ahead for Indiana State to prove themselves. The next three weeks in particular—two games against both Missouri State and Wichita State, along with a game at Creighton—will give an excellent barometer of just how far the program has come.