- Jeff Shelman
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Give Indiana State coach Royce Waltman at least a little credit for his optimism. The Sycamores' coach, some staff and players were driving back from the Missouri Valley Conference media day in St. Louis when somebody piped up with this question:
"Who the hell had us first?" the voice said.
Waltman's response: "That was me."
On that day back in October, the Sycamores were the preseason No. 8 selection in the 10-team Missouri Valley. Northern Iowa was the league's preseason pick, followed by Creighton and Southern Illinois. Those top three teams received 42 of the 43 first-place votes. After all, those three have combined for nine NCAA Tournament berths in the past four seasons.
That lack of optimism about the Sycamores is part of the reason why Indiana State is the most surprising of the 13 undefeated teams remaining in college basketball (a total that actually is 14 if you count a Baylor team that has yet to play; the Bears were banned from playing nonconference games this season because of violations committed under Dave Bliss). Sure, there are other surprises on the list -- Clemson and Iona, in particular -- but this Indiana State thing is a bit out of the blue. After all, the Sycamores were 6-22 in 2002, 7-27 in '03, 9-19 in '04 and 11-20 last season. That, for the math-challenged, is a combined record of 33-88 and a winning percentage (if you want to call it that) of .273.
But with Thursday night's overtime victory over Illinois State, Indiana State is 8-0, and the Sycamores can be mentioned in the same sentence with teams such as Duke, Connecticut, Washington and Florida. That hasn't happened on a regular basis in Terre Haute, Ind., as the last time the Sycamores opened the season with that many consecutive victories, shorts were short and a dude named Bird was wearing the light blue.
Waltman acknowledges this team has exceeded his expectations so far this season.
"I thought if we could get over the hump confidence-wise, we could have a good season," said Waltman, who led Indiana State to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and '01. "I thought we could certainly have a good record."
How has it happened? Three things have converged for the Sycamores: A favorable schedule, experience in the backcourt ... and a little luck.
Waltman acknowledges that the schedule hasn't been a killer. With the exception of a home game against Indiana and a game at Butler, the rest of the schedule has been littered with the Middle Tennessees and Campbells of the hoops world. That said, Indiana State played well in its most difficult game of the season. While Indiana's Marco Killingsworth lit up Duke for 34 points, the Sycamores limited him to only 10. That was much of the reason why Indiana State upset Indiana 72-67 -- perhaps the best victory so far this season by a Missouri Valley school.
Things will get significantly more difficult before that new calendar gets put on the wall. Next Wednesday, the Sycamores play their first Valley road game of the season, at Wichita State. Two days later is a game at the school formerly known as Southwest Missouri State. And even though the Bears now go by Missouri State, the fact remains that Indiana State hasn't won in Springfield, Mo., since 1975.
Wichita State and Missouri State are a combined 15-3 this season, and while Indiana State is improved, the Sycamores went 1-16 away from the Hulman Center last season.
This Indiana State team, however, should be better equipped to play away from home. The Sycamores return 71 percent of their scoring from last season, and David Moss was one of the league's most underexposed players while averaging 14.9 points per game. Now a senior, Moss has scored 20 or more points on five occasions.
He's joined in the backcourt by junior Tyson Schnitker, who now is able to find shots on a regular basis. In Indiana State's victory at Butler, Schnitker scored 20 points after halftime, something Waltman said wouldn't have happened in the past.
"He wasn't strong enough," Waltman said.
Inside, the Sycamores have upgraded. Trent Wurtz is a George Mason transfer who sat out a year ago, while freshman Jay Tunnell is a very skilled forward who was Mr. Basketball in Kansas as a high school senior.
"Wurtz is 21 years old, and he's a strong kid," Waltman said. "He's a very fierce competitor and he's aggressive. Our championship teams have had players like that."
And championship teams -- or, in this case, surprising undefeated teams -- also have the ability to win close games. Sometimes it's a guy making a crucial play, other times it's sheer luck. Either way, the result is a victory.
Thursday night's game against Illinois State was the second time this season Indiana State has needed overtime. Six of the Sycamores' victories have come by 10 or fewer points, two have been by a single point and last weekend's victory at Butler certainly required a bit of luck. Trailing the Bulldogs by two with 1.6 seconds to play, Schnitker caught a long pass, dribbled twice and made what was nearly a 30-footer at the horn for the win.
So what will this fast start eventually mean for a Sycamores team currently in the top dozen in the Ratings Percentage Index?
"We feel good about ourselves," Waltman said. "The past few years, our self-esteem wasn't very good by this time of the year.
"We've gone through three, four tough goes. This has had a positive impact."
That said, it's difficult to know exactly where Indiana State fits in a very good Missouri Valley Conference. Waltman's contention is that there are only two kinds of teams in the Valley: "Contenders and pretenders."
Despite his preseason bravado, Waltman is among those who believe Northern Iowa is the best team in the league. If Creighton guard Nate Funk were healthy -- he might be lost for the season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder -- the Bluejays would be right there, too.
After those two? Wichita and Missouri State have been good, Bradley has a chance now that big man Patrick O'Bryant is back from his NCAA suspension, and Southern Illinois has struggled. Are the Sycamores good enough to finish in the Valley's upper division and contend?
"If you can finish in the top half, you have a chance to win the whole thing," Waltman said. "We have a chance to do that."
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Coming off of four terrible seasons, Indiana State might be the nation's most unexpected unbeaten.