SB Nation

Craig Fehrman | October 22, 2013

The march toward midnight

For a mid-major looking to break through, all Cinderellas are not created equal

Greg Lansing looked beat. The coach of Indiana State's men's basketball team normally comes across as disciplined and intense. With his buzz-cut gray hair, he seems to belong in one of two places -- either in front of the bench at a big-time arena or at the local strip mall, his unit's most successful Army recruiter.

Indianastate1_mediumIndiana State coach Greg Lansing. (Getty Images)

But Lansing had just watched his team lose to Iowa in the first round of the 2013 National Invitation Tournament. While the Sycamores' season had included plenty of good -- beating No. 13 Creighton at home, beating No. 14 Wichita State on the road -- tonight had been mostly bad, particularly in the second half, when the team had earned an embarrassing technical foul for having six players on the floor.

Now Lansing had to slog through his press conference. The reporters lobbed leading questions, eager to fill the blanks in their game stories and get home. ("Greg, can you talk about the lack of concentration ... and how disappointing that is?") As the interrogation continued, Lansing began looking a little distracted himself. But then, without any real prompting, he started to muse on something that cheered him up: "These are -- we don't have a senior," the coach said. "We're going to be a good team."

* * *

Everyone knows what a Cinderella looks like in March: the team that's a little shorter and a little slower hits the last-second shot. Their bench, shorter and slower still, storms the court, bursting with all-downhill-from-here endorphins.

This is what a Cinderella looks like in September: It's an ugly day at the Idle Creek Golf Course outside Terre Haute, a mix of summer's mugginess and fall's cloudy skies. Ray Goddard, the course's profoundly tanned pro, has just erected a small "Indiana State University Welcomes You" banner in front of the clubhouse. Today is the basketball team's annual golf scramble. The course's blue pins make a perfect match for the bright, "Pantone 293" blue in the Sycamores' colors, though that's just a coincidence.

As Goddard steps back to check his work, Lansing pulls up in a golf cart. The coach points at two new golf bags in his cart. "What do you think of giving these away for closest to the pin?" he says.

"Well, you gotta give ‘em something," Goddard replies.

Lansing zips off to sort out the raffle and some other prizes, though not before he and Goddard tango through the following exchange:

Ray: "You're looking at the third-best coach in Indiana State history."

Greg: "Third best? I had more wins than John Wooden did in his first year!"

Ray: "Oh, I wasn't even counting Wooden - he was only here a year or two. So fourth best."

Greg: "Well, I never had you as a player."

John Wooden really did coach at Indiana State, winning 44 games before UCLA poached him in 1948. And Ray Goddard really was a terrific player, starring for the Sycamores from 1959-62 and even leading the country in free-throw percentage his senior year. Indiana State boasted a solid NAIA and Division II program, but when it jumped to Division I in 1969 the team struggled.

"It got to where you almost expected a losing season."

That all changed with the arrival of Larry Bird -- or was supposed to, anyway. "Indiana State may not be very good right now," Bird told his coaches, "but it will be when I get there." That was an understatement. In 1979, he took the Sycamores to the Final Four, where they lost in the final to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Goddard says everyone assumed the team, which had recently joined the Missouri Valley Conference, would settle in as a consistent power, propped up by all in-state talent. Instead, the Sycamores went back to struggling, finishing 17 straight seasons at .500 or worse. "It got to where you almost expected a losing season," Goddard says.

In the late ‘90s, the program enjoyed a brief revival behind point guard Michael Menser and a few others. Even today, the 5'11 Menser looks like he should be a bag boy at IGA, but in 2000 he led Indiana State to its first March Madness since Bird. This time, however, the fans realized it didn't represent a lasting transformation so much as a temporary occurrence, the result of years of patience followed by a well-earned payoff. The next year, Menser and the Sycamores went dancing again and even upset fourth-seeded Oklahoma. But the moment Goddard remembers best is the guard draining two 3-pointers in eight seconds to beat Indiana University at Assembly Hall. "We've got more people in Terre Haute who are IU fans," Goddard says, leaning in close, "than are Indiana State fans."

This year, those Indiana State fans believe they're in for another potentially special season. Lansing, who is in his fourth year as head coach, has assembled a top-heavy roster. "We don't get blue-chip recruits, but we get pale blue chip," Goddard says, and the four juniors who started against Iowa are now seniors. "People are expecting big things," he adds. This Cinderella has scrubbed her fair share of floors, and her supporters want to see her go back to the dance.

For now, Lansing is busy dragging stray trash cans out of the way and checking one last time on the beer in the beverage carts. This event will draw about 120 golfers, an alarming number of them in sandals and socks. But at $600 for a foursome, it'll also go a long way toward getting the team to the schedule-boosting Great Alaska Shootout.

Idle Creek has a nice banquet facility, but the pre-golf lunch takes place in a garage-like annex with folding tables and plywood walls. Out front, the team manager hands out basketball schedules and encourages golfers to add a team-wide mulligan for only $20 more. A university administrator reminds everyone about the next fundraiser, where a Larry Bird statue will be dedicated.

The ghost of Bird hovers everywhere at the scramble. Dan Wolfe, who owns Wolfe's Auto Auction and is one of the program's biggest boosters, remembers the high-scoring "Larry and Harry Show," which featured Bird and forward Harry Morgan. "You couldn't get in the Hulman Center without season tickets," Wolfe says. Bob Heaton actually played on those teams and even hit a pair of last-second shots. But he wishes the crowds hadn't dropped off the second the Sycamores stopped winning. "I hate to use the word bandwagon," he says, "but that's what it was." The same pattern applied, on a smaller scale, to the Menser era. With the current squad, it barely applies at all. The annual high school game between Terre Haute South and Terre Haute North packs eight- or nine-thousand fans into Hulman. Sometimes the Sycamores, even with their recent success, draw only half that.

Odumusat_mediumJake Odum, Indiana State's star point guard. (USA Today Images)

"We're thinking NCAA tournament this year. Even the NIT would be a disappointment."

Still, today has turned out a small but devoted core of ISU followers. Lansing works the crowd, nodding, listening, and backslapping. A few players loiter by the golf carts, notably All-Conference point guard Jake Odum. Odum looks like he's been beamed straight from the inside of a gym: high socks, baggy shorts, half-drank bottle of Orange Gatorade. The senior jokes with fans in his goofy, easy-going manner. At one point, even Bird's ghost makes an appearance -except it turns out to be Larry's brother Eddie, who has the same soft face and prominent nose. "They could use more fans," Eddie says, "but the community backs ISU."

Before long the buffet thins out and people start swapping their sandals for cleats. Odum jogs by, excited that some no-shows means he gets to golf. "I got picked up!" he crows. As the golf carts begin to pull out, Brent Compton reflects on the season ahead. He's wearing a Sycamores shirt and a Sycamores hat -- two of the many styles available at PaceSetter Sports, the local sporting goods store he operates. "We're thinking NCAA tournament this year," Compton says. "Even the NIT would be a disappointment." When asked how long he's been looking forward to the 2013-14 season, Compton answers immediately. He's been waiting on this season, for six full years -- ever since the first time he saw Odum lace up for the Terre Haute Jammers, an obscure AAU squad that turns out to be quite a story itself.

* * *

Terre Haute rests on the bank of the Wabash River, where the land is hillier than what you see in "Hoosiers," but only a little. Like many Midwestern cities, it's been hollowed out by interstates leading elsewhere (in this case, I-70) and by a decline in manufacturing. The presence of local universities -- Indiana State, plus a couple of private colleges -- keeps Terre Haute healthier than most similar cities, but only a little. It's the place where folks from the smaller towns in Indiana and across the border in Illinois drive to shop or eat or catch a movie.

Terre Haute is also where Jake Odum was born and raised. He never saw Indiana State as his destiny. "I just had nowhere else to go," he says. "I had no offers, no Division II offers, no junior college offers, nothing." Last year, Odum led the Sycamores in scoring (13.6 PPG) and assists (4.6) and nearly led them in rebounding (4.5). "That kid is as good a point guard as I've seen on film," Iowa's Fran McCaffery said after the NIT game. "I mean that sincerely." Yet Odum still clings to his underdog status. In fact, the only way to turn him serious is to tell him he can't do something -- or to get him to compile his slights. "So many people have told me that I wasn't good enough, that I couldn't do this or that," he says. "I'm just out to prove them all wrong."

the only way to turn him serious is to tell him he can't do something.

Odumusat2_mediumJake Odum (USA Today Images)

Odum has cultivated this worldview basically from birth. At 6'4, he's long- and loose-limbed, with a scrawny build and a scraggly beard. (Lansing likes to tell reporters his star "looks like a skinny Amish kid.") He was even scrawnier as a kid, with a bigger and faster brother. "We had a sliver of pavement about the size of the paint," Odum recalls, and the two would play for hours. "I remember blood and tears from me," he says. "Not too much from him."

Once he got older, Odum started playing for school teams, though he still wasn't that good. As a freshman at Terre Haute South, he didn't even make JV. But in the summer of 2007, the year between his sophomore and junior years, he joined the AAU Terre Haute Jammers.

Brad Miley, who played forward at Indiana State with Bird, had started the Jammers a few years before. "It was primarily for my kids," he says, and the program drew its players from the 20 or so miles around Terre Haute. The team didn't enjoy a Nike or Adidas sponsorship -- unlike some other AAU teams, they didn't travel extensively or wear slick warm-up suits. Indeed, for most of the roster the notion of "jamming" was itself aspirational. "We had no Division I scholarships on our team," says Lucas Eitel, another ex-Jammer who walked on at Indiana State and is now a key shooter off the bench.

Still, the Jammers went on a stunning two-year run, regularly beating teams that boasted eight or nine future D-I players -- guys like Garrick Sherman (Michigan State), Evan Gordon (Arizona State), and DeShaun Thomas (Ohio State). "We played ‘Indiana-style basketball,'" Odum says (and those are his scare quotes). Most AAU teams play a fast-and-loose style that makes even NBA offenses seem elegant and unselfish. But the Jammers opted for a more structured, team-based approach, passing the ball, cutting constantly, chirping on defense.

It worked. "I don't think most of our opponents knew what hit them," Miley says. The Jammers' motives were never entirely pure. "If we play individually we don't beat them," Odum explains. "And then we're definitely not getting any looks from college coaches."

In 2008, Miley decided to take his team on the road. The Jammers scraped together enough cash to attend the Nike Main Event, a sprawling, four-division tournament in Las Vegas. To save money, the Jammers flew in on a brutal red-eye out of Indianapolis and played their first game that same day. "You could tell they were tired," Miley says, and the Jammers lost to a team from Oregon. Then they won their next eight straight, beating Dallas Showtyme and capturing the Gold Division title.

That summer, the Jammers went 44-5 and won five tournaments. Miley always uses a homemade version of the plus-minus statistic, and Odum dominated it. "But honestly, it didn't help us in getting recruited," the guard says. Even when the Jammers won, the coaches focused on their more physically gifted opponents. "We would have no coaches there watching us," Odum says. "None."

That's not quite true. There was often one college coach in the stands -- Greg Lansing. "Usually in July you're flanked by coaches on both sides and just talking," says Lansing, who had just started his second stint as a Sycamores assistant. "But during the Jammers' games you had to actually watch because no one was there." When more coaches did show up, to scout the other team, Lansing would propose an informal bet. The Jammers won him a lot of free dinners that way.

During Odum's senior year at Terre Haute South, Indiana State finally offered him a scholarship. "I just knew his teams would win," Lansing says. "That's what he's always done, and that's really all he cares about." The point guard arrived at Indiana State as a member of its most locally-sourced class in decades. In addition to Odum and the walk-on Eitel, there was also RJ Mahurin, a highly-recruited 6'8 forward from Rockville, one of those towns where people have to drive to Terre Haute. All three redshirted. "I hated that freshman year," Odum says, and his coaches recall how every time someone showed even a hint of a injury he would volunteer to ditch the redshirt -- right up to the season's final regular-season game.

In 2010, Odum finally made his Sycamore debut. It was also Lansing's first season as head coach, and the guard amazed even his most ardent supporters. "I thought he'd be good, help us out," says one of Lansing's assistants. "But not this."

What makes Odum so great? He's not a Michael Menser -- an archetypical efficient, smooth-shooting Indiana guard. Odum's shot remains a bit awkward, he's not that athletic, and even in high school he rarely blew past defenders. (On YouTube you can still find his highlights from Terre Haute South -- maybe the only recruiting tape in history that features a bounce pass hitting someone in stride.)

Instead, Odum succeeds through a paradoxical mix of superb instincts and sheer orneriness. It helps that he's grown, from 6'1 in high school to 6'4 today, and he now uses that height to find teammates and get his own shot. "It doesn't matter who you put around him," says Manny Arop, a forward for the Sycamores. "He'll adjust to your game." Odum also never stops competing. That can get him in trouble, especially on drives to the basket. But Odum does a bit of everything, and he does everything his way -- he's the kind of guy whose mitochondria have chips on their shoulders. Lansing still marvels at how the guard played his sophomore year with a stress fracture in one foot and plantar fasciitis in the other. "After one game against Minnesota," the coach recalls, "he took his shoe off and the bottom of his foot looked like it had been painted red -- just beet red."

It all adds up to the same style Odum used with the Jammers -- and, hopefully, to the same surprising results. Growing up in Terre Haute, he remembers how exciting it was when Menser's teams took off. Odum was still in middle school, and he and the other kids from homeroom would all go to games together. Terre Haute was like that back then. "Everywhere you went, you could hear the buzz," he says. Now he wants to bring that buzz back. "I probably won't ever leave Terre Haute, so I can't end on a bad note. People have been talking about Bird for 30, almost 40 years. I want the same thing."

Indianastatewide_mediumJake Odum with coach Greg Lansing. (USA Today Images)

* * *

This can make it seem like a golden age for the Cinderella. But the truth is more complicated.

When it comes to intra-state affection, the Sycamores must compete not just with IU, but with Indiana's other top D-I programs -- Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler. And it's that last school, strangely enough, that creates the most problems. In 2006, the George Mason Patriots rumbled all the way to the Final Four -- the most shocking team to do so since Bird's Sycamores in 1979. Since then, mid-majors (or teams that hail from outside the six major conferences) have continued crashing the Final Four: Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State, and Butler (twice), in addition to credible threats from Gonzaga, Creighton, Xavier and a few others. This can make it seem like a golden age for the Cinderella. But the truth is more complicated. Every run by a "mid-major" like Gonzaga only obscures the challenges facing a "mid-major" like Indiana State. Indeed, in today's college basketball there's less a movement toward absolute parity than a few schools smartly gaming the system, leaving the rest of the NCAA to zig while the Gonzagas, well, zag.

Nobody knows this better than Manny Arop, who transferred to Indiana State after two years at Gonzaga. "It's a difficult comparison," he says diplomatically. "Every team in the country is trying to accomplish Gonzaga's consistency."

Gonzaga maintains that consistency by following a simple but deliberate plan. "The focal point is basketball," Arop says. Most athletic departments slaver over football, which offers the biggest rewards, but also the highest costs and the most competition. Gonzaga and its peers choose a different path: 1) either drop or deemphasize football; 2) channel those resources into basketball, which is comparatively cheaper; and then 3) wait patiently until Jim Nantz coos on air about your program doing things the right way. Gonzaga may seem like a Cinderella, but in every way that matters it's a wicked stepsister in disguise.

These hoops-first programs have settled into a smart and lucrative cycle -- put money in (chartered flights, fatter recruiting budgets, top-notch facilities), get money out (national exposure, bumps in applications and alumni giving). They moved past the motivational-quotes-on-the-blackboard stage a long time ago -- something that's clear in the way Gonzaga pitched itself to Arop. "They told me, ‘Don't worry about [high-major schools],'" he remembers. "‘We're going to play those guys.'" Gonzaga's program may not measure up to Kentucky's or Syracuse's, but its budget actually exceeds those at places like Tennessee and Georgia Tech. In fact, last season Gonzaga spent $6.1 million on its men's basketball program.

The rise of the Cinderella coincides neatly with the expansion of the tournament and the explosion of its TV rights.

It shouldn't be surprising that Xavier ($4.7 million), Creighton ($4.4 million), and Butler ($3.9 million) all migrated to the new Big East -- they already were spending Big East money, anyway. Still, their mid-major legacy lingers, largely because CBS and the NCAA love its emotional and marketing wallop. The rise of the Cinderella coincides neatly with the expansion of the tournament and the explosion of its TV rights, which have jumped from $16.6 million per year in 1982 to $771 million today.

Indiana State, for its part, spent $1.7 million on basketball last year, dead last in the Missouri Valley Conference. Most players at Indiana State don't like the "mid-major" label any more than do the players at Gonzaga. (Odum, of course, is the exception: "I embrace it," he says. "It gives me a little extra motivation.") But everyone in the program understands that they lag behind much of the competition.

"It's an arms race in college athletics," Lansing says. "We don't have the bells and whistles of a lot of teams in our league." The Hulman Center remains a cinder block of an arena, while the Sycamores practice in separate structure that predates Larry Bird. Although a donor recently paid for a new practice floor and a sharp player's lounge, to get between the two the players still have to walk under drop ceilings and through grimy hallways straight out of high school.

This doesn't mean Indiana State downplays the importance of winning. (Far from it: When the NCAA tried to guarantee scholarships for four years, Indiana State was one of the schools that howled the loudest. "When the coach leaves," it argued, "the new coach and institution may be ‘stuck' with a student-athlete they no longer want.") But it does mean that, come March, the basketball team will need to beat out not just its Valley equals, but also our increasingly inaccurate idea of Cinderella. After all, Gonzaga isn't George Mason, and Indiana State isn't Gonzaga, either.

* * *

the same NCAA that embraces a fuzzed-out concept like "mid-major" will also demand that its basketball programs adhere to absurdly precise rules.

One of the mental contortions it takes to be a fan of 21st century college sports -- and it's a rather small one, all things considered -- is that the same NCAA that embraces a fuzzed-out concept like "mid-major" will also demand that its basketball programs adhere to absurdly precise rules. And that's just to practice. The day after the golf scramble, the Sycamores meet for what the NCAA calls "offseason skill instruction." It's partly for show, since a new player -- a point guard, as it happens -- is here to watch. But the closer you look, the more the workout can seem like a full-blown pageant, with the NCAA's silliness as its central theme.

Despite all that, Greg Lansing gets right to work. The coach stands alone at the center of the shiny new court, and throughout the workout his voice will ring out intensely and often exclusively. There's not a lot of small talk, in part because there's not a lot of time. The NCAA's Legislative Council loves to micromanage, and that means from the start of the semester through Sept. 15, college coaches can work with their players only in groups of four. From Sept. 15 through the official start of practice, those coaches can bring together their entire squad. But even then there's still a catch -- the teams can do so for only two hours per week, and coaching staffs must keep meticulous track of the time.

Today, Indiana State's coaches get 35 minutes, and on the sideline stands an assistant with a stopwatch. Lansing divides his players into three teams: white, blue, and skins. "If your team gets scored on," he says, "you're off the court." And with that the Sycamores start sprinting up and down the floor.

Lansing puts a big emphasis on community service, and while his assistants teasingly call him "The Mayor," last year the basketball program did more volunteering than any other Sycamore team. At practice, however, Lansing can get a little Rahm Emanuel. "Blue, you're not saying shit on defense," he hollers. "Get the fucking ball and go," he bellows a bit later, after a few players don't transition fast enough.

The coach minding the stopwatch nods in the direction of the new player, who's dribbling a ball between his legs and watching. "The message we're sending right now is that this is a guard-dominated offense," he says. "The ball's going to be in your hands."

That message happens to be correct. As Odum describes it, the Sycamores run "a freestyle system -- all motion, read and react." So while Lansing drills them on crisp cuts and ball fakes, he leaves most of the decision-making to Odum. The new wrinkle this year -- and it may explain why the coach is yelling "Fucking listen!" at a big man who's not moving quickly enough -- is the team hopes to run more. It helps that they'll also rely on a deeper rotation. The only issue, on this count, is that RJ Mahurin, who had matured into the team's third-leading scorer, surprised everyone this spring by transferring to Indiana Wesleyan, a tiny NAIA school. (Mahurin's younger brother is also heading to Wesleyan, and it seems their father, the longtime coach at Rockville High School, maneuvered them onto the same squad. "That's the word on the street," Ray Goddard says.)

Either way, Indiana State cares most about its defense. Arop, who's long and Big-Six-Conference athletic, gets tackled as he drives across the lane. "Foul," Lansing reluctantly says. "But I'm still giving blue the ball because he dribbled too much."

During his own college career, Lansing was a defend-first point guard, and the team works every single day on its positioning. Last year, the Sycamores' scoring defense ranked in the middle of the Division I's 345 teams. But according to kenpom.com, Ken Pomeroy's website of advanced college basketball statistics, they did so against a slate of opponents that added up to the nation's 15th-hardest offensive schedule. The Sycamores, it turns out, were one of the two or three best defensive units in the Valley -- and improving on that will be crucial if they want to go on a tournament run.

If the Sycamores don't go on a run, they will blame their offense or their lack of size. Other than Justin Gant, their more legitimately bearded big man, the team doesn't rebound that well (and that was before Mahurin left). Still, the players believe their fate will come down to focus. During their summer workouts -- and there the NCAA pushes a whole separate set of eye-glazing rules -- the players worked harder than ever. "We didn't finish at the end of last season," Eitel says. So this year the team has made its mantra "Finish it." That's the phrase they call out when they're running one last lap or grunting out one final set in the weight room.

Before long, the assistant with the stopwatch raises his hand -- the 35 minutes have passed. "Really good pace," Lansing says, lowering his voice to inside-a-crowded-bar. And with that the coaches tramp out of the gym in a single file. The unspoken message is that the players should start a pickup game so the new guy can join in; someone's already grabbed a reversible jersey for him. But he seems a little skittish after the workout he's just seen. Even the players seem tired -- some plop down on the court, others studiously re-lace their shoes, others are extremely invested in finding the right game ball. It looks like the "pickup game" might not happen, until Jake Odum strides out on the floor. "Hey," the senior says, "are y'all ready to go?"

Indianastatewide2_mediumIndiana State holds an "offseason skill instruction." (Craig Fehrman)

* * *

Something people always notice about Hoosiers is their candor. Near the Idle Creek Golf Course sits a small trailer park. Its name isn't "Regal Estates" or "Sumptuous Court," but simply "Castaways."

Still, it's hard to get a straight answer from inside Indiana State on whether this season might be special. "Last year we had some high expectations," Arop points out. "I just take it one year at a time," adds Gant. Lansing bristles at the notion most of all. "I want to be right in the hunt every year," the coach says. "I'm not going to focus just on this year. Next year, our goals are going to be the same."

There's certainly some truth to those statements. Yet it's also true that Indiana State appears to be near the end of a careful four-year cycle. It seems like a plan that started once they realized what they had in their current group of seniors, especially Odum. It seems like a plan where they pursued transfers like Arop and junior college guys like Dawon Cummings -- players who are fast and can finish for Odum. It seems like a plan when, this year, they booked a one-and-done road game with Notre Dame to ratchet up their schedule, which is now the third toughest in the conference.

At least, it seems like a plan to Sycamore fans, who, more than the team, can engage in some glass slipper window-shopping. "It's at the very front of everyone's mind," Brent Compton says. Those fans also realize this year may come with some downsides. Indiana State lags behind in coaching salaries, just like in everything else. Lansing is one of the lowest-paid coaches in the conference. His predecessor, Kevin McKenna, left to be an assistant at Oregon -- and still saw his salary jump by $100,000 per year. "College sports is money," ISU booster Dan Wolfe says. "Now our biggest fear, as fans, is losing part or all of this coaching staff."

That fear is lurking on a lot of campuses around the country -- on campuses much like Indiana State's. But there is also hope. For Indiana State, this is what a successful 2013-14 might look like: Jake Odum, their best player in a decade, will graduate; Greg Lansing, their best coach in several decades, will leave for a better job; the program's lengthy cycle will start over; and maybe, if the matchups turn out just right, and the games break just so, the team will string together a few March upsets. Maybe everything will come together, and maybe it won't. Either way, the clock will strike midnight.

The Sycamores can hardly wait.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Craig Fehrman is a freelance writer who lives in Indiana. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and Deadspin, among others. His Kindle Single, "Home Grown: Cage the Elephant and the Making of a Modern Music Scene," comes out this week. Find more of his work at www.craigfehrman.com and @craigfehrman.

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