Gage Bobe has only been at the University of Evansville for two seasons, but has already collected enough college basketball stories that will last a lifetime.
In his freshman season alone, Bobe witnessed the Purple Aces defeating No. 1 Kentucky in one of college basketball's bigger upsets in history. He followed that up by losing his coach a little more than a month later. Soon after Evansville wallowed through a 22-game losing streak that extended into his sophomore season, which started with a one-of-a-kind COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.
The South Knox graduate and walk-on guard is soaking it all in like a roller coaster ride at Holiday World.
"I'm not sure what I expected coming here, but that was definitely not it. It's been interesting to say the least," Bobe said. "But I've had such a good time playing basketball here. A lot of that is just the coaching staff and being around my teammates."
At least it hasn't been boring.
Bobe's second game of his career was at Kentucky at fabled Rupp Arena. His first was at Evansville's Ford Center, where a spirited crowd of 5,372 watched second-year coach Walter McCarty's team take a 22-point halftime lead then hang on to stop Ball State, 79-75. The team had just two days to prepare for the top-ranked Wildcats. The time was well spent.
"A lot of people might not believe it, but everybody's mindset was that we were going to win that game," Bobe said. "We had the best game plan we had all that year. We watched so much film. We knew all their players going in, what they were going to try to do. Coach McCarty played there, and he got us so fired up."
That's all well and good, but the Wildcats brought Evansville to Lexington for a reason, a guaranteed win, and they were a 25-point favorite that night. That kind of one-sided game never materialized.
The Aces led the last 10 minutes of the opening half and took a 34-30 lead at intermission. Kentucky forged a 48-46 lead in the second half, but that was their only lead after halftime. Evansville shocked the world with a 67-64 win with 19,101 in attendance.
It was the first win over a No. 1 team in the Aces' history. It was the first time a Missouri Valley Conference team defeated a top-ranked team on the road. The Wildcats had won 52 consecutive games against unranked opponents at home before that unlikely result.
"Coach McCarty wanted that win. We alll wanted it. When the horn went off, the energy was just crazy," Bobe said. "We just came in with the right mentality. I know they were suppose to beat us, but if the favorite won every time, we wouldn't play the game.
"I was hopeful we were going to have a good season. It didn't play out like we planned."
A win over No. 1 for a relatively new coach, it doesn't get much better than that for setting a foundation. It turned out the foundation was made of straw.
Two days later, Evansville hosted IU-Kokomo and the Aces showed no hangover in an 89-71 win to go 3-0. The big game came the following Monday at home against SMU.
"SMU was just outside of the Top 25. We had to show that we were going forward from the Kentucky game. We wanted to be ranked, so we had to beat those guys," Bobe said.
The fight was there, but the precision and board work wasn't. The Aces shot 35 percent, outrebounded by 22 and fell, 59-57, in a battle of early unbeatens.
"We played pretty well, well enough to feel that we still got this," Bobe said.
Evansville went 5-1 after a 1-2 trip in the Islands of the Bahamas Showcase. The Aces were 9-4 heading into conference play, but Bobe knew something wasn't right.
"We didn't play well in the Bahamas. That's where I felt we started to let down. We lost one of our better players, (DeAndre) Williams, to an injury. He scored and did everything well. Him missing games hurt us a lot."
It got worse just after Christmas when McCarty was put on administrative leave for inappropriate conduct. He was fired the following month.
"We learned the same time that everybody else did," said Bobe of the late-December announcement. "He never did get to address the team after that.
"I liked coach McCarty. He was the one who recruited me. We had a good relationship," Bobe said. "That was something I definitely never experienced before. Here I am my first year of college, and coach is gone by midseason. I couldn't base that on anything in my past.
"It was going to be interesting. A new coach was coming in, saying it was a new season and we were going to change philosophies on some things."
Between McCarty suspension and his ouster, Evansville made assistant Bennie Seltzer the interim coach, then they hired Todd Lickliter as the permanent coach. Lickliter, who was an assistant coach with the Aces the year before, had not been with the team that season before the hiring. Not a formula for success.
The Aces opened conference play with a 65-52 loss at Missouri State on Dec. 31. That was the start of 19 consecutive losses to end the season. Evansville had several chances for victory. Valparaiso beat the Aces 81-79 in overtime and 67-65. Southern Illinois escaped Evansville with a 64-60 overtime win. Indiana State eked past the Aces 64-62. A third loss to Valpo in the conference tournament was 58-55.
"In mid-January some of our defensive principles changed. We made adjustments offensively. That's tough to do in the middle of the season. We tried to pick it up as quick as we could," Bobe said.
"We were trying to focus on winning games. Some of them slipped away for sure. Honestly it was just a few plays in a lot of those games," Bobe said. "We watched film, we made adjustments. We just couldn't win."
The promising 9-3 start nosedived into 9-23 and 0-18 in the Missouri Valley. The McCarty era lasted less than two seasons. The Aces went 17-15 in Marty Simmons' last season in 2017-18. The following two teams combined to go 20-44. Evansville wasn't going forward.
COVID-19 didn't do a lot of favors for college basketball teams, but the Aces may have benefitted from a truncated 25-game season.
Bobe said the expanded offseason allowed Lickliter, who's had previous head coaching stops at Butler and Iowa, more time to put his program in. The team knew that Lickliter was going to be their coach going forward, and Bobe said the team was all in despite the rocky start.
The losing streak grew to 22, the last one a disheartening 93-87 double-overtime loss at Tennessee-Martin. But the skid ended on Dec. 9 with an 68-65 home victory over Eastern Illinois.
The team was just 2-5 in non-conference play, but showed much improvement in the Missouri Valley by going 7-11, moving from 10th place the year before into fifth. It was an awkward schedule, with Evansville playing two-game series within the conference to limit travel and help with COVID-19 protocols.
"That benefitted us," Bobe said. "We have a good coaching staff, and we analyzed film a lot, seeing what we needed to fix to give us an advantage in the next game. It led us to winning some of our games in the second one after losing the first."
Bobe wasn't sitting either like many walk-ons around the country. The sophomore played in 14 games, hitting a combined 6-of-10 three-point attempts against Tennessee-Martin and Bradley. He was on the floor for double-figure minutes seven times.
The increased time just didn't happen for the former Spartan.
"As a freshman I didn't play hardly at all (five games), so my main goal in the offseason was just to get better at everything," Bobe said. "I was hoping to get playing time, and I was glad to get an opportunity. I did have some success, just doing whatever was needed. It wasn't like I was trying to score 30 out there."
Bobe said he's hopeful for a normal junior year, that playing in the Ford Center filled with fans is a fun environment that he didn't get to experience much last year. Despite the difficult times, the guard said it has all been worth it.
"Any kid out there who thinks about playing basketball at the next level, go for it," Bobe said. "I heard a lot of stuff about how I was wasting my time. You work hard enough, you can do it."