News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 18, 2012

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Sycamores are Odum’s team now

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Soooo … who wants to talk about the 2012 Indiana State men’s basketball season?

It’s funny. Ever since Tuesday’s hard-to-fathom, fall-from-ahead 67-60 loss to Robert Morris in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament at Hulman Center, anyone who had a stake in the 2012 season — fans, etc. — couldn’t run far enough away from it.

There’s really no point in doing a lengthy autopsy here. ISU’s season was defined by lack of toughness. ISU coach Greg Lansing put it another way, repeatedly saying during the season that the team, “couldn’t handle success.” Very true.

Yet another way to put that is that the Sycamores’ 2011 NCAA Tournament run, and expectations that came from it going into the season, conspired to create overconfidence. Too often forgotten by the Sycamores in the multitude of disappointing 2012 performances was the work ethic displayed by the 2011 team that got them to a point of earning expectations to begin with.

The 2011 team was hungry and had something to prove. The 2012 team? Too often they walked into a gym wondering why the food wasn’t already on the plate.

Even the unquestioned highlight of the season — the 61-55 win at No. 25 Vanderbilt on Dec. 17 — probably worked against the  Sycamores in hindsight. The last thing this particular ISU team needed was a belief that they had arrived prior to the Missouri Valley Conference season. One 2-7 MVC start later, they had arrived all right — in ninth place.

(From a basketball standpoint, the Sycamores also missed Aaron Carter. Carter was a decent defender during his senior season and ISU did not have an effective combination shooter-driver in 2012 in his mold.)

The bittersweet taste of an 18-15 season that left hungry ISU fans feeling empty in its wake has been understandably disconcerting. I’ve heard more than one ISU fan say the 2011 season was a mirage — that the NCAA Tournament bid was the by-product of three days of good fortune in St. Louis and wasn’t representative of where the program really is.

As gloomy as some of my assessments of 2012 are, this is where I light a candle in the darkness. I’m not buying it that the program is stuck in neutral.

The truth of where ISU’s program is lies somewhere in-between. Were expectations of MVC contention too much for the 2012 Sycamores to handle? Clearly. But is this team capable of better than eighth place? They are. And for all of the angst that that the 2012 season produced, there is hope for 2013.

It starts with junior-to-be Jake Odum, but it only partly has to do with his on-floor production. Odum is the unquestioned leader of this team — on and off the floor — for the next two years.

There’s no one on the roster who has the gravitas, experience (would-be senior Koang Doluony won’t be back), productivity, or the grit of playing through injury-related adversity as Odum has displayed in his first two seasons to challenge him as the team leader.

Odum has been the on-floor leader as the starting point guard since early in his freshman season, so one might ask how is this any different from the last two seasons? While he’s led on-the-court, Odum’s ability to lead off of it — a role he wants to have — has proven more difficult.

Odum didn’t always have a bully pulpit with the older players on the roster, a contributing factor in the disappointing season. With those players gone, Odum can and should be trusted to demand accountability from his teammates.

Accountability … it is so vital when it is demanded from a teammate or teammates in addition to the coaches. Odum has to demand it. He can’t worry about irking his teammates if the occasion calls for it.

One of ISU characteristics in the eight years I’ve covered the men’s basketball team is the dearth of players who could do that. While the Sycamores have almost universally had good guys in that time period, very few of them had the gumption to challenge a teammate to get better or get in their face if he was slacking or holding the team back.

Odum has a unique opportunity to have a two-year window to amend that. He doesn’t need to go around raving like a lunatic, but his teammates should know they have to answer to him as well as the coaches if they aren’t doing their jobs.

Juniors Steve McWhorter, R.J. Mahurin and Lucas Eitel also need to be more vocal and join Odum to change the culture of teammate-to-teammate accountability. To wit, that trio all has segments of their games that they need to improve. Via their work ethic, they can not only improve their own games, but set the example for their teammates as to how things are done.

Past that, the various basketball-related pieces the other 2013 Sycamores have in tow — Manny Arop and Khristian Smith’s potential scoring prowess, Rhett Smith’s versatility, Devonte Brown’s quickness, improvement from Justin Gant and Jake Kitchell, etc. — will only be maximized if they demonstrate complete buy-in. A lot of that buy-in has to come from Odum.

Past is prologue. The 2012-13 roster will be almost entirely comprised of players whose college basketball experiences have been formed from the delight of 2011 and the disappointment of 2012. They have two years left to turn the bad experience into a positive one.

It won’t be easy — the MVC is going to be good in 2013 and there’s no smoothly-paved road back to league contention.

But Odum is the wellspring if the Sycamores are to get there. Presuming he can return to health, Odum has the fortitude to lead the Sycamores to a happier place than where they are now.

He is the man. We’ll see where he can take this team as an upperclassman.

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