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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Hoops and History

With two NCAA Division I programs, Evansville’s basketball future looks as bright as its past

Editor’s note: Read more about Evansville as a sports town in the full feature story.

Basketball simply is played at another level in hoops-mad Indiana, including in Evansville.
The University of Evansville men’s basketball program has won five NCAA Division II national championships and made five trips to the Division I tournament. The University of Southern Indiana, now in its second season in DI, captured the DII men’s title in 1995.

If you’re a history buff, consider that Evansville may have hosted Indiana’s first basketball game.

The Evansville and Terre Haute YMCA men’s teams met on Jan. 27, 1894, at the Evansville Y. An article written by S. Chandler Lighty titled “James Naismith Didn’t Sleep Here: A Re-Examination of Indiana’s Basketball Origins,” published by the Indiana Magazine of History, found that “Evansville seems to have been the site of the earliest competitive (non-exhibition) basketball game in the state.”

Now, that basketball legacy is rebuild- ing under two familiar names. Former USI player and current UE coach David Ragland played for the Eagles from 2001-03 for head coach Rick Herdes, the first season in which current USI head coach Stan Gouard was Herdes’ assistant.

“We have a unique relationship,” Gouard says of Ragland. “I’m pulling for him and he’s pulling for me.”

Photo of David Ragland by Zach Straw

Ragland transferred to USI after playing his first two seasons for Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

After battling pancreatic cancer for 15 years, Ragland’s father, Darrell, died in 2017, at age 61. Gouard’s father also died of cancer, in 2006. Ten years later, Gouard was there, helping Ragland through the same painful process.

Ragland marvels that Gouard earned the nickname “Superman” during his playing days without a hint of irony. Owing a debt of gratitude to then-USI head coach Bruce Pearl, Gouard is an accomplished coach in his own right. He guided the University of Indianapolis to eight NCAA DII tournament berths before joining USI in 2020.

As for Ragland, he is starting to turn UE’s program around in his second season as head coach. The Aces eclipsed 2022-23’s win total — admittedly, a meager five — by the end of November. Last season had marked the Aces’ fourth last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference in the past six years. Heading into Christmas 2023, UE had the MVC’s third-best overall season win record.

Ragland was a senior at William Henry Harrison High School in 1999 when UE made its last NCAA tournament appearance. That same season, he led Harrison to the Class 4A semi-state tournament at Indianapolis’ Hinkle Fieldhouse.

“Returning to town, the city of Evansville, to coach at the University of Evansville, it’s come full circle,” says Ragland, 42.

His mother, Karen, was a major player in USI’s Varsity Club, so he knows what it takes to win on the floor and succeed behind the scenes. Ragland carried his basketball acumen over to a series of DI assistant coaching jobs, also serving as head coach at Vincennes University’s junior col- lege program and now at UE.

Photo of Stan Gouard by Zach Straw

Gouard, who lifted the Eagles to the 1995 DII championship and was named the two- time DII National Player of the Year, posted a 16-17 record in USI’s first season of DI. The Eagles finished seventh in the Ohio Valley Conference; the OVC tournament at the Ford Center takes the top eight teams in the league.

Gouard, 53, notes that the second year in DI often proves difficult. Aside from lead- ing mighty Duke University at halftime of Thanksgiving weekend’s Blue Devil Chal- lenge before reality set in, the Eagles struggled early this season. They must survive a four-year waiting period before becoming eligible for the NCAA tournament.

Lightly recruited Isaiah Swope, a Castle High School graduate, flourished as a freshman at USI. But the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) money available at Indiana State University helped lure Swope to the Sycamores, where he already is among the Missouri Valley Conference’s best players as a junior. (Read more about Swope and other athletes to watch.)

On the court, Ragland says UE was in a “dark place” when he arrived. “We had an individual mindset we had to overcome. We are building the program, brick by brick. We are changing the culture, from the strength and conditioning program (on up).”

As for Gouard, he continually praises Pearl, his old college coach, now in his ninth season at Auburn University.

“We talk on a weekly basis,” Gouard says. “He’s part of my life. I wouldn’t be a coach without Bruce Pearl. He coaches hard and loves harder. He’s a great players’ coach. He’s a winner everywhere he’s been. He’s a great friend, a father figure, and a mentor.”

East Side, West Side Rivalry Intact

Just like the East and West sides of Evansville, UE — a small, private school — and USI — a still-relatively young public university — are distinctly different. That said, Gouard mentions that Eagles’ and Aces’ scouts occasionally are recruiting some of the same players.

The universities also have some of the same donors and sponsors, such as Old National Bank. But UE officials were reluctant to single out their largest donors and sponsors.

Photo of former Screaming Eagles head men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and Athletic Director Jon Mark Hall provided by the University of Southern Indiana

“Multiple businesses and organizations support both programs,” USI athletics director Jon Mark Hall says. “As far as alumni and friends go, we have had gifts from Tri-State Orthopaedics, Heritage Federal Credit Union, and Ron and Connie Romain for naming opportunities this year. Those mentioned, plus Old National Bank, Heritage Petroleum, and Banterra Bank, continue to be major sponsors for USI Athletics in 2023-24. The USI Varsity Club and private gifts are critical to the transition to Division I for USI Athletics.”

USI has eight men’s and nine women’s sports; its budget in DI was $6.5 million per year. Hall says it’s currently in the $8-$9 million range and hopes to increase it to $12 million by the end of the four-year transition period. Part of the cost has been absorbed by students. Their annual athletics fee went from $60 to $120.

NCAA Division I requires non-football schools to sponsor at least 14 sports, notes UE athletics director Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried. UE has seven men’s and eight women’s sports.

At the Division I non-football level, budgets can range from around $5 million to $50 million-plus. At the Football Bowl Subdivision level, the budgets also vary, but the amounts range from about $18 million to $215 million. UE’s athletics budget is around $13 million, Siegfried says.

UE’s 2022-23 average home attendance of 4,548 ranked fourth in the MVC despite the Aces’ 5-27 season, speaking volumes about its fan base. USI’s average home attendance, 2,372, was third in the OVC.

Photo of Purple Aces Athletic Director Kennth “Ziggy” Siegfried provided by the University of Evansville

Siegfried, who joined UE from California State University Bakersfield in 2022, says the community is excited to have two DI programs, and “it will continue to be a pride point in a city filled with a lot of great sports history.”

“Evansville is special for many reasons, but one thing I have learned is 95 percent of the people in our city want both teams to succeed. When we play each other, there is no doubt that people in the community have that competitive spirit,” he says. “But at the same time, I believe there is the desire of many to dream of both teams one day reaching the highest level of success at the DI level.”

Like Ragland, Siegfried doesn’t think there is a lot of crossover in recruiting. “I am not saying it never happens, but right now it is not very common for us to be going against USI for a student-athlete,” Siegfried says. “I also want to make it clear that I am not naïve to the fact that two Di- vision I programs are in the same city, and there will be times where we are going up against one another for top talent.”

As for NIL, Siegfried says it will continue to play a significant role in collegiate athletics.

“I feel we are in a good spot with the changing landscape, but we have to continue to evolve,” he says.

UE and USI have met five times, all in exhibitions. Because USI is now Division I, fans are clamoring for regular season matchups.

“Both of us want to play each other,” Siegfried says. “We are having ongoing discussions as to exactly how that future partnership may look like.”

“We should play — sooner rather than later,” Gouard says.

How Have They Fared?

The teams have met in five exhibition games through the years:
• 2004: UE 88, USI 75
• 2006: UE 77, USI 75
• 2008: UE 71, USI 67, 2OT
• 2012: UE 73, USI 55
• 2019: UE 71, USI 68, OT

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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