Every time Indiana State’s men’s basketball wins a game, you think to yourself, OK, now is when these Sycamores live up to their potential.
That vibe began to permeate again last Tuesday after an undermanned ISU team gutted out an overtime victory over Illinois State.
But the Sycamores keep teasing everyone. The kind of gutty effort ISU had against Illinois State has been the exception this season, not the rule.
Potential? That’s for the preseason. Twenty-eight games are in the books. At some point, you are what you are. What is ISU? A team whose heart, effort and concentration are fleeting.
It was proven again on Saturday against Butler. The listless Sycamores went down 75-54 at Hinkle Fieldhouse in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
There’s no shame in a loss to Butler. The Bulldogs are a good team.
But it’s the manner in which ISU loses that’s been disheartening all season long. Heart, effort and concentration are attributes all teams — good or bad — should have each and every game. It should be automatic. But for the Sycamores, it’s been a maddening season-long quest to possess that basic trait.
“We knew how tough they are, we knew how well-coached they’d be. We knew how hard those guys would compete. You tell [the ISU players] and tell them. Maybe they just don’t understand,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Bad as it was, in the rogue’s gallery of ugly ISU losses this season, the defeat against Butler doesn’t rate with the likes of poorly-played nightmares at Drake, Southern Illinois and Bradley.
But that’s kind of the point. A team picked third in the Missouri Valley Conference with NCAA Tournament expectations shouldn’t get to a point where a discussion of its bad losses is part of its vernacular. Instead, it defines ISU’s season.
“It’s frustrating this late in the season to be so inconsistent. This is a rivalry game and we didn’t come out and play,” said Odum, who was scoreless one game after he had notched a career-high 34 points.
It’s abundantly clear that on a game-to-game basis, you never know what Sycamores you’re going to get. It’s had a chilling effect on the entire season.
Put yourself in Lansing’s shoes. How can you truly prepare for any opponent when you don’t know what level of effort or concentration you’re going to get up-and-down the roster on a game-to-game basis?
How can the players have faith in one another when the inconsistency of effort and performance are so varied? Aside from Odum, who has played hurt and whose bad games have been the exception more than the norm, whom do you trust on this team … night in, night out?
Crickets are chirping …
How did this happen? None of the Sycamores seem to know. The on-again, off-again nature of this team has created this limbo-like state where the team keeps waiting for itself to snap out of its inconsistency instead of fighting to make it happen.
There seems to be a lack of understanding that there’s no free lunch in college basketball. If the effort isn’t there, you’re going to get exposed. It’s happened to ISU time and again throughout the season and it happened again on Saturday. At some point, you’d think the Sycamores would learn the lesson, but they seem to have an endless well of performances that suggest they haven’t.
This ISU team is at its best when it has a chip on its shoulder. It had it last year when it felt the league overlooked them. It had it at Vanderbilt. It had it twice against Evansville. It had it in close losses to Wichita State. Those were games that ISU went into with utmost respect for their opponents, knowing full-well they’d get blasted if they didn’t play as if they were the underdog.
But ISU gets into trouble the minute it starts to believe it has turned a corner. ISU expected to win at Drake, Southern Illinois and Bradley. I thought it had momentum today coming off the Illinois State victory. Overconfidence is often their own undoing.
“It’s been an Achilles heel. We rise to the occasion sometimes, but when we’re bad, we’re been pretty bad. We let poor play on the offensive end really get us lackadaisical on the defensive end. We can’t beat anybody like that,” Lansing said.
What’s equally maddening is that the players often see their own lack of effort reflected in the better effort put forth by their foes. R.J. Mahurin, who scored a career-high 22 points on Saturday, could see it in Butler on Saturday.
“They’re a great team. I mean, they went after every rebound. You knew when a shot was up, you were getting pounded. It was that kind of thing,” said ISU forward R.J. Mahurin, who scored a career-high 22 points.
OK, so if Butler can bring that kind of effort into the game, why can’t the Sycamores?
“I think we need to do a better job of that,” Mahurin admitted. “I know it’s in there.”
ISU fans think it’s in there too. But will ISU ever prove it for more than a game at a time? Time is short. ISU has two games and the MVC Tournament to salvage something of the potential that was placed on it going into the season.
One would hope that ISU puts forth the heart, effort and concentration to get the job done. But the Sycamores have teased everyone before. Against 28 games of evidence to the contrary, they need to show, once-and-for-all, that they won’t tease everyone again.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.