For Indiana State forward Nate Green the defining moment of this season didn't come on Dec. 11, when his Sycamores traveled to Bloomington and beat the despised Hoosiers for the first time in 74 years. It wasn't on Dec. 19, either, when Green, a 6'5" senior swingman, scored a career-high 45 points in a 102-91 OT win over Eastern Illinois. Green has enjoyed some great moments, but the one that really stands out came earlier, at an easy-to-miss Terre Haute eatery called Square Donuts. It was there, the morning after Indiana State's 89-77 win over TCU on Nov. 21, that Green was—gasp!—recognized while waiting to buy a couple of 30-cent, square cream-filled specials. "I was ready to pay," says Green, "and the guy behind me said, 'I've got the bill. After the job the refs did on you last night, you need a break.' I thought, Wow! He knows who I am."
This delights Green, who took it as a sign that after two decades of playing sorry basketball, the Sycamores—who were led by Larry Bird when they last reached the NCAA tournament, in 1979—had finally returned to respectability. "When I was deciding where to go to school, two of my final choices were here and Minnesota," says Green. "My freshman year, we finished 12-16, Minnesota went to the Final Four, and I drove to Indianapolis and watched from a nosebleed seat. Sometimes you wonder if the good times will come."
Now, it seems, they have. Through Sunday, led by Green, who ranked 11th in the nation with 3.2 steals a game and also paced Indiana State in scoring (14.3), assists (4.4) and blocks (1.1), the Sycamores led the Missouri Valley Conference with a 9-2 mark and were 16-6 overall.
In many ways Green was an unlikely candidate to lead this revival. While growing up in Des Moines, he was one of the state's top youth soccer players, a forward on the Iowa United team that won seven straight state club titles. In hoops at Roosevelt High he was little more than a gangly big man with no touch. "Nate had no idea what he was doing," says Rick Ray, an Indiana State assistant and former assistant at Roosevelt.
When Green was a sophomore, however, Roosevelt coach Greg Lansing, now an assistant at Iowa, sat Green down in his office. "He was the first person to tell me that I had a chance to reach another level in basketball," Green says. "He told me to choose a position, and he'd mold me into a player. I was always a center, but I wanted to be a point guard." Green gave up playing for Iowa United and started to improve in hoops. As a senior he averaged 18.1 points, 7.0 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game.
He has shown similar versatility at Indiana State, with a good chance to rank in the top 10 in the Missouri Valley in assists, blocks and steals for the third straight year. Whether that translates into an NBA opportunity will depend in large part on Green's mediocre jump shot. He is a tweener slasher—the kind of player not quite good enough to stick as a 12th man with the Clippers, but perhaps just right for leading a scrappy, overlooked college program to a place even sweeter than a dozen square jelly donuts: the NCAA tournament.