Still, hope for an NIT berth remains
Brandon Cole, 6-foot-6 forward for IUPUI Spring is dancing season in the basketball world. Little brothers like to dance and they grow up waiting for their turn to go to either the NCAA tournament or the National Invitational Tournament. Everyone wants an invite to the “Big Dance,” but if not, an invite to the “Big Apple” is not too shabby. IUPUI, the eternal little brother, was poised to go dancing until sixth seeded Chicago State dashed their hopes with a 57-53 upset in the Mid-Continent Tournament semi-finals Monday, March 6.
Despite the loss, IUPUI is on the way to building its credentials as a legitimate power in this basketball crazy state. IUPUI is the third largest school in the state with over 29,000 students, has 16 players in the program with ties to Indiana, more in-state talent than any other Indiana school and six former Indiana All-Stars. The Jags have had a winning record for the past three seasons, have amassed 57 wins and placed three players on this year’s Mid-Continent Conference post-season award squad. Their head coach was also honored and they are paced by three players from Indy.
Brandon Cole, a 6-foot-6 forward from Ben Davis, is the senior leader on the IUPUI men’s basketball team. He made 76 three-point goals and averaged 15.4 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game during the regular season.
Six-foot-2 sophomore guard George Hill, a former Indiana high school All-Star and Broad Ripple High standout, was the team’s Jack-of-all-trades. This past season he did just about everything except take tickets at the door and sell popcorn and sodas. He was the team’s scoring leader, averaging 18.9 points per game, the highest scoring average for a sophomore in the league. He also averaged 5.7 rebounds per game, 3.63 assists per game and shot free throws at better than 81 percent and had 1.74 steals per game while averaging better than 37 minutes.
Both Cole and Hill were named First Team All Mid-Continent Conference Players, the first time two Jags were named to the team. Five-foot-11 junior guard David Barlow, Pike High School and former Indiana All-Star, averaged 10.2 points per game and dished out 3.33 assists per game to complete the three-way scoring threat. Senior Maushae Byles, from Racine, Wis., was voted the Mid-Continent Sixth Man of the Year. He averaged 7.3 points and 18.4 minutes per game and is the first IUPUI player in school history to win the Sixth Man honor.
Miami of Ohio graduate and former player Ron Hunter leads the Jaguars. He is a former high school and college teammate of Ron Harper, who won four NBA championships, three with the Chicago Bulls and one with the Los Angeles Lakers. Hunter, in his 12th year as the men’s basketball head coach, wears his heart on his sleeve. He paces, he screams, his outrage and joy are very visible to all those watching.
The 2003 Mid-Continent Conference title game was a perfect example. IUPUI earned its first ever berth in the NCAA tournament by beating Valparaiso 66-64 in a back and forth game. At the end of the win, Hunter fell to his knees in celebration, ripping his trousers in the process. His emotional outburst landed him on ESPN’s SportsCenter and put IUPUI basketball on the map. The Jaguars earned a spot in the 2003 NCAA tournament, their only appearance in their short Division I history, and were rewarded by being matched up against Kentucky; the Jags played hard but were outmatched and lost to the Wildcats 95-64.
This year, Hunter has guided the Jaguars to a 19-10 record. They went 13-3 in the Mid-Continent Conference, including a nine-game conference win streak and were 8-0 at the IUPUI gymnasium, nicknamed “The Jungle.” Not bad for a team that had a 16-13 record and finished fourth in the Mid-Con last year. Ron Hunter was named the 2005-2006 Mid-Continent Conference Coach of the Year, his second such career award.
Now the Jaguars will have to wait until Sunday, March 12, when the NIT extends invitations to 40 teams. The NIT could pick them based on their record and their regular season co-championship but that is no guarantee. Two years ago, the Jags had a record of 20-11 and were left at home. They’ll have to be patient and cross their fingers if they are to go dancing again.