Indiana State senior Tommy Lynch and three friends took a field trip to Koch Arena to see a basketball game last month.
“I couldn't believe the atmosphere and the excitement,” he said. “It was remarkable. Simply put, it’s the type of atmosphere we're trying to build at Indiana State.”
Lynch is the director of The Forest, Indiana State’s student government-sponsored cheering section at the Hulman Center. The Sycamores meet No. 4 Wichita State on Wednesday in the biggest game at the Hulman Center since Indiana visited in 2005. The stakes are high for the Shockers, as well, who can build a three-game lead in the Missouri Valley Conference and increase their chances of an unbeaten season with a win.
Lynch admired the choreographed cheers, the players introductions, the highlight videos and the use of Twitter on the big screen at Koch Arena. While he doesn’t want to steal a bunch of ideas, he would like to ramp up the noise in the Hulman Center to greet WSU, the highest-ranked team to play in the arena.
If a tree isn’t wearing blue in The Forest, can you hear it yell at the Shockers?
Lynch’s group will distribute blue T-shirts, blue rally towels, blue sunglasses and blue wigs. They will wait for the second half to hand out blue and white foam noodles to fans sitting behind the basket the Shockers will shoot at after halftime.
“This is definitely a lot more planning than an average game,” Lynch said.
Lynch and his friends started planning the 602-mile drive to the Wichita for the Jan. 18 game, a 68-48 WSU win. The expenses appeared to be too much, until Indiana State coach Greg Lansing stepped up to help. He paid for a hotel room in Columbia, Mo., and the students stayed with team in Wichita.
“If it wasn't for him, there was no way we would have been able to make it,” Lynch said. “With the success they’ve had, it’s well-known Wichita has the best atmosphere in the Valley.
“I was happy to help,” Lansing said. “We’re trying to get our students more involved.”
Nothing will get them more involved than more competitive game than the earlier meeting. Wednesday night’s game is a must-win for the Sycamores (17-5, 8-2 MVC) to keep the conference race competitive. A win would also provide a big boost to their NCAA at-large resume.
The Shockers (23-0, 10-0) can take an imposing lead in the MVC and grab the tiebreaker with a win over Indiana State, the only other team above .500 in conference play. The players are well aware of the history on the line. They got to 23-0, with an average margin of victory of 15.2 points, by ignoring they hoopla on game day.
“We don’t really focus on that at all,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “Nobody in this program feels like we’re at our best, or we’ve reached our peak. We understand that every game in the Valley is a challenge.”
While the weather may affect the crowd, Indiana State had sold more than 7,000 tickets as of Tuesday. A normal walk-up crowd will add perhaps 1,500 or more in the 10,200-seat arena. The weather delayed WSU’s arrival in Terre Haute. Snow kept the team’s charter plane from leaving Tuesday; they are scheduled to leave Wednesday morning.
The Shockers are used to the crowds by now. Critics of their schedule often overlook the fact each MVC opponent is hyped to play in front of the largest crowd of the season. Teams such as Missouri State and Illinois State played above their usual level, at least for a half, given the chance to pull the upset and bask in the glory of a court-storming.
“I love playing on the road,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “I always feed off the crowd. I kind of get into it with students from other teams. I probably shouldn’t do that, but they kind of fire me up when they know me by name.”
WSU’s crowd didn’t play much of a role in the earlier meeting because the Shockers led by nine at halftime and by 20 early in the second half. Lansing didn’t like the way his team responded to WSU’s physical play and intensity. The Shockers outrebounded the Sycamores 44-30 and outscored them 34-14 in the lane.
“Our margin for error against them is very thin at both ends of the floor,” he said. “We’ve got to defend better, make it tougher, fight a little harder.”
Indiana State is the MVC’s most-balanced offense with all five starters in double figures. It shoots 47 percent from the field, second in the MVC, and 38.3 percent from three-point range, third in the conference. The Shockers held the Sycamores to 5 of 20 from three-point range. Guard Dawon Cummings scored 19 points and the other four starters totaled 15.
“We were playing too quickly,” Lansing said. “We did not make them have to defend throughout many extended possessions.”