INDIANAPOLIS — Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith didn’t miss the opportunity to joke around with his players when they hit the floor Monday at a historic venue.

The Runnin’ Utes were the first NIT Final Four team to practice at famed Hinkle Fieldhouse, and Smith asked a couple of his guys about an iconic moment from “Hoosiers,” the Hollywood movie shot partially within those Indianapolis red brick walls.

“It was cool and you walk in and guys are kind of looking around because it’s such a unique venue,” Smith told media members Monday. “I asked Lawson Lovering, I said, ‘Hey, you got the tape measure?’

“He looked at me, kind of like, ‘No.’

“I said, “Lawson, have you seen ‘Hoosiers?’

“He was like, ‘No.’

“I’m like, ‘What! How do you not?’ Should have shown it, right?

“I asked a couple — you know — Luka Tarlac from Serbia. I said, ‘Luka, you got the tape measure?’

“‘No. What are you talking about?’”

Smith, of course, was making reference to when “Hoosiers” coach Norman Dale pulled out a tape measure to show his Hickory High team that the floor measurements inside the field house were the same as the ones in their gym back home.

“Gabe (Madsen) and BC (Branden Carlson) are kind of shaking their head like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I was like, ‘Guys, you’ve got to teach these guys a few things. It’s your responsibility,’” Smith jokingly chided.

“But to be able to play in an historic place, I think really adds to the event and I think there’s an extra meaning behind it. Certainly for me, but not just me, with everybody that knows anything about basketball. It’s pretty cool.”

Sure enough, just like Hickory encountered when it faced South Bend Central in the Indiana state championship in “Hoosiers,” there’s some extra meaning when Utah will hit the floor Tuesday night to play Indiana State in the first of two NIT semifinals at Hinkle (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN).

How to watch Utah play Indiana State in the NIT semifinals
Why Indiana State reminds the Runnin’ Utes of BYU

3 things to watch

The battle between bigs

Both Utah and Indiana State feature a star center that anchors their team.

On one side is Utah’s 7-foot fifth-year center Branden Carlson, while Indiana State is powered by 6-foot-10 sophomore center Robbie Avila.

Carlson is the leader of a veteran squad and has played some of his best ball in recent weeks with his college career winding down and is averaging a team-leading 17.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

The South Jordan native has developed into one of the Utes’ top 3-point shooters, and defensively he is the school’s all-time blocks leader.

“He’s obviously a tremendous player. You know, he can do it all. He’s 7-feet tall. Can shoot it and play in the post. He’s definitely going to be a challenge for us to be able to guard,” Avila said of Carlson.

Avila has been a viral sensation for his signature goggles and unique play — he’s a stretch five who can do pretty much everything — and has earned nicknames like Cream Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Nerd and Milk Chamberlain.

The Oak Forest, Illinois, native is averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.

“He’s a great player. I don’t think we have too many five-men in the Pac-12 that does what he does,” Carlson said of Avila. “He’s more of a stretch five, very skilled, can do a lot of different things, so we’re going to have to be very prepared to guard him, and we’re excited to go out and face them.”

Indiana State center Robbie Avila (21) during an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois State, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Terre Haute, Ind. | Doug McSchooler

Indiana State’s 3-point propensity

While Utah is a good outside shooting team — the Utes make 9.1 3-pointers per game and shoot 36.3% from outside — Indiana State is elite in that regard.

The Sycamores rank fourth nationally in average 3-pointers per game (10.9) and are 11th in 3-point percentage (38.3%).

Runnin' Utes on the air

NIT semifinals

Utah (22-14)

vs. Indiana State (31-6)

Tuesday, 5 p.m. MDT

Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)


Radio: 700 AM

Utah has shown it’s capable of defending well against other high-capacity 3-point shooting teams like BYU — the Cougars made 7 of 30 from 3 in a loss to the Utes in December — and VCU, who made just 5 of 26 from long range in a NIT quarterfinal loss to Utah.

“It’s been a big emphasis for us. We kind of talked about, we played a couple teams like this recently like Iowa and you go back further like BYU kind of,” Madsen said of Utah’s 3-point defense.

“We’ve had experience against teams like this. Obviously they are their own animal but it’s been a big emphasis for us. Our coaches get us ready, so it’s going to be a fun game.”

How will Carlson end his storied career?

Carlson, along with grad transfer guard Cole Bajema, are the only two Utes guaranteed to see their college eligibility end this week.

For Carlson, the journey from being a Utah native to a Bingham High standout to Utes star has culminated in a chance to play at a storied arena to finish his college career.

“It’s super cool. Obviously there’s a lot of talk of me finishing my last game in the Huntsman Center but it’s cool to know I’m finishing my whole college career in Hinkle Fieldhouse.”

—  Utah center Branden Carlson

While Carlson had a 30-point, 10-rebound game on Utah’s Senior Night win at the Huntsman Center in early March and has followed that with strong efforts in the NIT, his final collegiate moments will be played in the Hinkle.

How will it finish out?

“It’s super cool. Obviously there’s a lot of talk of me finishing my last game in the Huntsman Center but it’s cool to know I’m finishing my whole college career in Hinkle Fieldhouse,” Carlson said.

“It’s exciting. Hopefully it goes the way we want. I know we put in a lot of preparation to be here, so excited to go out and play and make some memories out on this court.”

What they’re saying about the Utah-Indiana State matchup

It’s been a historic season for Indiana State (31-6), a team that was seen as one of the biggest NCAA Tournament snubs.

The Sycamores, whose No. 29 NET ranking is the highest ever for a team left out of the tournament, has won 31 games, just two shy of the school record set in 1979 when Indiana State, behind Larry Bird, lost in the NCAA championship game played on the University of Utah’s campus.

“We said we were going to be prepared to try to prove the (NCAA Tournament selection) committee right, hopefully, by being in the tournament and advancing, or preparing to prove the committee wrong,” Indiana State coach Josh Schertz said.

“Turns out we had to prepare to prove the committee wrong that we should have been a tournament team. I think we answered those questions. You talk about — what do they say — the best revenge is success? So it would be great to capstone this season, this journey, with an NIT championship.”

Smith praised the Sycamores for the moxie they’ve shown in an unforgettable season that at one point saw Indiana State briefly appear in the national top 25 rankings.

“These guys are really good and they can beat anybody at any given day just like — because they put so much pressure on you and the way they go about it,” Utah’s coach said.

“You can feel their moxie. Like you can just feel their moxie and their winning pedigree. They understand winning. Some teams don’t always understand. These guys understand winning and winning at a high level.”

Utah Utes guard Cole Bajema (2), left, and Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35), right, help up Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) after being fouled on a 3-point basket during the NIT quarterfinal game between the Utah Utes and the Virginia Commonwealth Rams at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Utah (22-14), meanwhile, is a team that lost its identity for a while in Pac-12 play after a promising nonconference schedule, but the Utes are now playing arguably their best basketball of the season.

In its final season before moving on to the Big 12, Utah has the chance to add a rare national postseason championship.

Schertz called Utah probably the best team his Sycamores have faced all year.

“They are good in transition. They are huge. They defend. They are solid. You know, sound defensively. They run good stuff. They play well in transition. They attack mismatches,” he said.

“You know, it’s a unique team. They are the biggest team we’ve played all year, but size itself doesn’t scare you. It’s the size with the skill that scares you. They have both of those at a very high level. Great size. Great skill. Extremely well-coached. Tremendously sound offensively and defensively.”

One thing that Indiana State will have on its side is a more partisan crowd at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which is sold out for both the NIT semifinals and championship.

Indiana State is located in Terre Haute, Indiana, just 75 miles away from Hinkle.

“To get the opportunity here to play a final four in April, in this venue, it doesn’t get much better.”

—  Indiana State coach Josh Schertz

Schertz called Hinkle “one of the true cathedrals in our game.”

“To get the opportunity here to play a final four in April, in this venue, it doesn’t get much better,” he said. “So we are excited for the competition. We know it’s going to be incredibly challenging, but this has been a great tournament so far and looking forward to the opportunity to compete against a great Utah team.”

The Utes are embracing the challenge as well, which will include playing in front of a hostile crowd for the first time in NIT play after Utah played its first three postseason games at the Huntsman.

“We’re excited to play in front of a sold-out crowd and have some energy in this building,” Carlson said.

Added Utah guard Deivon Smith, “Just to have a packed-out house to compete for 40 minutes is going to be exciting. We’re all playing for a championship, so I think it should be a great memory for all of us.”

FILE - Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Indianapolis. If there is a holy trinity of college basketball cathedrals, the home of Butler — and for decades home of the Indiana high school basketball championship — might stand alongside Allen Fieldhouse and the Palestra. | Doug McSchooler