Indiana State, ‘Cream’ Avila advance to NIT finals

INDIANAPOLIS — Remember when Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship was all the rage? The Bulldogs’ former place-kicker made “Rec Specs” famous during a UGA career that saw him go from walk-on to the legendary “Hot Rod” from 2015-19.

Well, Indiana State has their own version of “Hot Rod.” In case you’ve missed his highlights on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Robbie Avila is a 6-foot-10, 240-pound center who rocks the Rec Specs like Hot Rod and, similarly, does some very good bespectacled work. He led the Sycamores into the NIT semifinals while averaging 17.3 points and 6.5 rebounds and shooting 53% from the field, 82% from the foul line and 39% from beyond the arc.

It was Avila’s 3-pointer from the top of the key that clinched Indiana State’s 85-81 win over Cincinnati and punched their ticket to Indianapolis.

Then he scored 26 points and had 10 rebounds Tuesday night to lead the Sycamores (32-6) to a 100-90 victory over Utah and into the finals. They will face Seton Hall (24-12), which beat Georgia 84-67.

Avila’s superior play coupled with his non-athletic look has lent itself to several nicknames, some of them flattering and others not-so-much. They include: “Cream Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Nerd, Larry Blurred, College Jokic, Milk Chamberlain and Steph Blurry.”

For what it’s worth, Avila doesn’t mind the humorous monikers.

“My favorite music artist is Rod Wave; I got that one earlier, ‘Rob Wave,’” Avila said during an appearance on “The Dan LeBatard Show.” “That’s always going to be my favorite, but I do like ‘Cream Abdul-Jabbar.”

Avila and Indiana State’s impact on this tournament is no joke. The school’s Terre Haute campus is located only 75 miles from Hinkle Fieldhouse, and the Sycamores’ overwhelming presence turned Tuesday’s night’s session into a solid sellout of 9,100.

Georgia remains shorthanded

Georgia’s big man Russel Tchewa was expected to be back on the court Tuesday night after missing all but five minutes of the past two games because of a flu-like illness. The 7-foot, 280-pound graduate transfer center had been practicing full speed with the Bulldogs in the lead-up to Tuesday’s 9:30 p.m. tipoff.

However, neither Jabri Abdur-Rahim nor RJ “Sunny” Sunahara participated in Georgia’s latest practices or shoot-arounds ahead of Tuesday’s game and therefore were not expected to play.

The Bulldogs’ definitely could have used Abdur-Rahim, even though it arrived on the Butler University campus this week having won five of their Past seven games. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Abdur-Rahim sustained an ankle injury in the Texas A&M game March 2 and hasn’t played since. A 27-game starter as a senior this season, Abdur-Rahim is the team’s second-leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and leading free-throw shooter (.887) and was third on the team in average minutes per game (25.9).

Sunahara’s injury is unknown, though he struggled since the beginning of the season with a knee injury sustained in preseason camp. Nevertheless, the graduate transfer started 11 games this year and was a part of the Bulldogs’ rotation when not sitting out a total of 19 games.

Seeing and doing

Georgia traveled to Indianapolis early Sunday, and the Bulldogs didn’t just sit around while getting ready for the Final Four. They were among 16,522 in attendance at Gainbridge Fieldhouse for Monday night’s game between the hometown Indiana Pacers and the visiting Brooklyn Nets.

The Pacers won 133-111, but a highlight for the Bulldogs was getting to see Nic Claxton, one of their own, get yet another start for Brooklyn. Claxton played two seasons at Georgia from 2017-19 before he was drafted by the Nets in the second round of the 2019 NBA draft. He averaged 13.0 points and 8.6 rebounds his second season for the Bulldogs.

Now in his fifth NBA season, the 6-11, 220-pound forward has averaged 10.3 points and 8.6 rebounds for the Nets. Claxton had seven points and 11 rebounds Monday night.

Howdy, Vern!

Tuesday was the 41st anniversary of Georgia’s Final Four appearance against N.C. State. Fittingly, Vern Fleming, the Bulldogs’ star point guard on the 1982-83 team, attended Georgia’s NIT game against Seton Hall on Tuesday.

Fleming played for the Pacers for 11 of his 12 years in the NBA and still lives in Indianapolis. He averaged 11.3 points, 4.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds in a pro career that included one season with the Nets.

At Georgia, the 6-5 Fleming was credited for being the engine that made the Bulldogs’ go on their runs to the NIT Final Four in 1982 and NCAA Final Four in 1983. He averaged 14.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists over four seasons in Athens.