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December 27, 2012

TODD GOLDEN: No beauty but ISU was beast in Hawaii

HONOLULU — This just in … Hawaii is beautiful.

The crystal blue waters of the Pacific Ocean entice you. They are contrasted by the volcanic browns of Diamond Head and the lush greens of the mountains of Oahu that can be seen in the distance from Honolulu.

The laid-back vibe is so friendly — Aloha and belated Merry Christmas, by the way. Palm trees are everywhere. I’m convinced palm trees evolved solely to provide all of us with a relaxed state of contentment. Works for me, anyway. It’s my theory and I’m sticking with it.

It’s so easy to be enchanted by a torch fire on the beach and a ukulele to while the time away.

Then the Indiana State men’s basketball team came along. They rode into the Stan Sheriff Center like Vandals invading Rome. There was nothing tranquil or elegant about the Sycamores’ surprise 2-1 performance in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

They took that ukulele and smashed it like Blutarsky from Animal House.

ISU clamped down defensively and just fought in a way not seen since its three-game performance at the 2011 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. And we all know what pot of gold was at the end of that rainbow.

ISU’s opponent shooting percentages were never more than average as the tournament went along. Ole Miss shot 41 percent, San Diego State shot 41.7 percent and Miami shot 33.8 percent.

For all of the sublime heroics and jaw-dropping moves Jake Odum makes, or the dunks Khristian Smith throws down, or the Plasticman-like drives Manny Arop manages to pull off, ISU showed in Hawaii exactly what its bread-and-butter will be.

It will win with defense. It will win ugly if it must. It will be unapologetic about it.

It’s the right way to go. ISU doesn’t shoot well enough from the field to consistently beat teams that way, although it shows signs. ISU’s 9 of 22 3-point shooting against Ole Miss was a big factor in its 87-85 overtime victory on Dec. 22, but ISU’s 4 of 13 against San Diego State and 6 of 25 against Miami has been closer to the norm.

The most encouraging thing that carried over ISU’s three games in Hawaii was its grit. There had been signs of it in the previous eight games, but it wasn’t as consistent as it was in the Diamond Head Classic.

ISU does not have depth in its frontline. Justin Gant, Jake Kitchell and R.J. Mahurin are about it, with Arop and Smith helping inside at times.

Despite that, the Sycamores did a great job taking turns taking the blows inside. Sometimes, it was ugly — Miami dominated the first half and parts of the second — but the Sycamores never quit coming at them. Eventually, the Hurricanes got into foul trouble and wore down. ISU kept going like an Energizer bunny, even after Gant had half of his front tooth knocked out in a rebound scrum.

It’s been under-the-radar, but this grit has been bubbling to the surface all season. A statistic that might surprise you? ISU is currently third in the Missouri Valley Conference in offensive rebounds. You could have won a lot of money from me if you’d bet the Sycamores would be in that spot prior to the season.

If ISU can square the circle between the grit it displayed in Hawaii and gain a measure of offensive consistency, the Sycamores will take off. ISU didn’t play well-rounded games against either San Diego State or Miami and still managed to win one of the games and push the Aztecs in the other.

ISU shot 27 percent in the victory over the Hurricanes, the lowest winning shooting percentage in Division I this season. That’s will to win and pure fight, but it also shows ISU has plenty of room to get better.

It’ll have to. The Sycamores — whose return home to Terre Haute was delayed by the winter storm — will jump right into the MVC fire.

Illinois State — picked to finish second in the MVC — visits Hulman Center on Sunday. ISU then travels to Northern Iowa — picked third — next Wednesday. On Jan. 5, ISU visits Creighton — picked first in the MVC and currently ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll.

“We have the gauntlet coming up,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.

Indeed. But ISU just ran a gauntlet in Hawaii. It knows it can handle it. If it means winning ugly, so be it.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And W’s don’t come with style points. ISU has proven its capable of doing the dirty work needed to have a successful MVC campaign.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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