Newly ranked No. 23 Indiana State takes on Illinois State

Larry Bird might not be walking through the doors of the Hulman Center these days, but this might be the best team Indiana State has fielded since he led the Sycamores to the 1979 NCAA Tournament title game.Ranked for the first time in 45 years, No. 23 Indiana State seeks to move a step closer to the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title Tuesday night when it hosts Illinois State in Terre Haute.”It’s a group that the community can really wrap their arms around and I think they have,” said Sycamores coach Josh Schertz. “That’s just great to see. I know Terre Haute. They love basketball. I know there’s a great history and tradition.”The Sycamores (22-3, 13-1 MVC), who have won nine games in a row, are adding to that history and tradition. They squeaked by host Missouri State 73-71 on Saturday to maintain a two-game lead on Drake with six games left. Their only remaining game against a top-four team in the Valley is a Saturday night visit to Southern Illinois.It’s taken Schertz three years to assemble a Top 25 team. He took over for Greg Lansing in March 2021 and took lumps in an 11-20 first season. They more than doubled the win total to 23 last season and appear on track for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth if they don’t win the conference tournament next month in St. Louis.Indiana State is built on a free-flowing, high-scoring offense that employs some NBA principles to establish favorable matchups. The Sycamores are fifth in Division I in scoring at 85.6 points per game, second in field-goal percentage at 50.8 and ninth in 3-point percentage at 39.3.The entire starting lineup scores in double figures, led by Southern Indiana transfer Isaiah Swope at 17.7 ppg and 6-foot-10 center Robbie Avila. Compared by some to Nikola Jokic for his versatility, Avila averages 16.4 ppg, 7.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists.While Indiana State aims to win its 10th straight game, the Redbirds (11-14, 5-9) strive for a season-making win. They nearly stole a victory at Southern Illinois on Saturday night, rallying from a 15-point deficit with 5:15 left with 14 straight points before falling 69-66.