TERRE HAUTE —
It was only Dec. 30, 2012 when Indiana State and Illinois State’s men’s basketball teams met in their Missouri Valley Conference lid-lifter, but based on what’s happened to the two teams since, it seems as if the game was a millennium ago.
To refresh your memory, ISU was coming off of a fruitful 2-1 trip to Hawaii, but the Sycamores were still perceived as an unknown quantity going into conference play.
The Redbirds, picked to finish runner-up in the preseason MVC poll, were riding high, ready to cash in on their promise after a 9-3 nonconference campaign that included wins over Dayton and Drexel.
Just over three weeks later, the script has been flipped.
The Sycamores and Redbirds have taken wildly divergent paths to get to tonight’s 8 p.m. rematch at Redbird Arena. And the game might be defined by both team’s identities as much as the Xs and Os.
ISU’s identity has been forged via its success. ISU (12-6 overall) has made it difficult for opponents to score, mostly via an excellent understanding of team defense.
Offensively, ISU spreads the scoring around with big men who can spread the floor with their outside shooting, a sinewy scorer in Manny Arop, and ultimate X-factor Jake Odum ± who finds a way to best his opponent via his passing or with a tough shot in the clutch.
Has ISU developed its identity to the point where teams have to beat their style of play as much as any one individual component of it?
“That’s true about most very good teams. Any good team is good because they’re well-coached, but because they have a mentality,” Illinois State Dan Muller said.
“They have a winner’s mentality. They’ve gotten down in a lot of games recently, but they continue to play. They guard. [Greg Lansing, ISU coach] mixes up their man coverages and they share the ball well. And they have a kid in Odum who can make plays. They’re really good. It’s not a fluke where they’re at,” Muller added.
Lansing likes the idea of the Sycamores having the aforementioned identity, but isn’t sure the team has achieved it yet.
“I don’t know if we’ve reached an identity, but that’s what we want to be like,” Lansing said.
If the Sycamores are trying to cement their identity, the Redbirds are trying to regain theirs.
Illinois State (10-9, 1-6) thought its identity was secure. Big forward Jackie Carmichael would provide the hammer blows in the paint. Tyler Brown was the feared gunner from the perimeter. Bryant Allen, Jon Ekey and John Wilkins were more than capable to step-up if either Carmichael or Brown slipped.
Defense was expected to improve under new coach Muller, a Kevin Stallings disciple.
While Carmichael has lived up to billing, the rest of the Redbirds lost the plot. The penalty was harsh. Illinois State lost its first six MVC games.
Ekey and Wilkins have been inconsistent. And Brown? He went into a self-imposed abyss of which he is just trying to emerge.
Brown converted 45.4 percent from 3-point range in 2012, and started hot this year, including a 36-point performance against Northwestern on Nov. 24.
But he had fallen off to 34.7 percent from 3-point range this season and hasn’t shot better than 38.9 percent overall in any MVC game.
After a scoreless game at Missouri State on Jan. 8, Brown was suspended on Jan. 9 for conduct detrimental to the team. He returned after a one-game absence last week and scored 22 points in Illinois State’s 70-56 win at Southern Illinois on Sunday. It was Brown’s first 20-plus scoring performance in over a month.
“We got on track when Tyler Brown starting playing better. We’re not as good as a team when Tyler isn’t playing or playing in the way we were accustomed to early in the year,” Muller said.
Even though the Redbirds finally broke their misery with the win at SIU, they still carry a burden and are still talented enough to shake it off.
Illinois State has time to dig out of their hole and avoid the play-in round at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, but the Redbirds know they have no margin for error, so tonight’s game has an urgency that many January games don’t.
“They can still finish third. Creighton and Wichita are going to hang near the top and the rest of us are fighting against each other for third to tenth. Their good enough to go on a streak and we want to do our best to prevent that,” Lansing said.
ISU won the Dec. 30 game at Hulman Center by a 77-75 count. The Sycamores controlled most of the game only to escape with a victory after a late Redbirds surge.
ISU had 12 turnovers in that game. Illinois State thrives on transition. For the Sycamores to be successful, they need to avoid playing into the Redbirds’ hands by taking care of the ball.