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College

January 17, 2014

MVC summit meeting … it’s on

Sycamores and Shockers face off for conference supremacy

WICHITA, Kan. — It’s one game at a time for Indiana State’s men’s basketball team this season. Until it’s not.

The Sycamores have stuck by that time-worn cliché and it’s paid dividends for them. A seven-game win streak and 12 wins in their last 13 games have been the reward.

But even the Sycamores know today is different. At 4 p.m. — in front of a national television audience on ESPN2 — ISU goes into the belly of the beast. A visit to No. 5 Wichita State, the highest-ranked team ISU has played since the 1979 NCAA championship game against No. 4 Michigan State.

It’s undefeated Wichita State … inside the cauldron that is Charles Koch Arena, the ear-splitting madhouse it calls home.

It is the MVC summit meeting and it is the most compelling Valley game of the season so far.

For ISU, it’s one of its biggest regular-season games in recent memory. Perhaps its most visible since the 2000 season when it won its last MVC championship. A win on the Shockers’ home floor would almost certainly thrust the Sycamores into NCAA Tournament consideration.

It’s a game many hoped would come off. Whispers about it began when both teams went two weeks without a conference loss.

After both survived scares last Saturday — Wichita State won in overtime at Missouri State and ISU slipped past Bradley in Hulman Center — the Shockers and Sycamores looked every bit the part of the MVC’s upper crust in their mid-week games. Both cruised with easy home victories against Bradley (for WSU on Tuesday) and Missouri State (for ISU on Wednesday).

ISU (14-3 overall) and WSU (18-0) have broken from the rest of the MVC pack. Both are 5-0 in conference action and enjoy a two-game cushion over the nearest MVC team.

Now the excitement is about to reach its crescendo.

The temptation might be for the Sycamores to fake it and act like it’s just another game. But it’s not and they acknowledged that.

“I’d be kidding you if I wasn’t thinking about it at times when I see their scores,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.

Normally laid-back ISU swingman Manny Arop could hardly restrain his enthusiasm.

“As much as I want to tell you it’s another game in conference? It’s not for us. It’s a big opportunity for any team to play Wichita, an undefeated team and No. 5 in the country. As a competitor? That’s what you dream of,” said Arop on Thursday.

“It’s a lot of fun, a lot of excitement. I couldn’t wait to get on the floor today and get into preparation. I couldn’t wait to get up extra shots, watch film, go over the scouting report. The whole process. Yeah, it’s another conference game, but it has extra meaning because they’re so good. You have to give it to them,” Arop added.

Mind you, this was a practice the day after a game for the Sycamores, normally a day to rest and decompress. But the depth of the Shockers’ talent is such that ISU couldn’t afford to back off much.

Where does one start with the Shockers? There’s Preseason MVC Player of the Year Cleanthony Early, one of the best forwards in the country. He’s averaging 16 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

There’s sophomore point guard Fred Van Vleet, who recently had four straight games without a turnover and whose conference-leading assist-to-turnover ratio is 4.5 — nearly two points better than second-place Jake Odum at 2.7. Appropriately, Van Vleet and Odum share the conference assist lead at 5.2 apiece.

“He’s a big-time player. He’s not out of control. He gets the ball to guys at the right time and he’s really efficient,” Odum said.

Then there’s dead-eye sharpshooter Ron Baker — whom the Sycamores didn’t match wits with last year due to a stress fracture that knocked him out of most of the MVC’s regular season.

He returned for the MVC Tournament and the shooting guard was a major reason the Shockers advanced to the 2013 Final Four. Baker averages 12.8 points and has made 39.5 percent of his 3-point shots. He’s also an 86.5-percent free-throw shooter.

But one player whose stats don’t tell his tale is starting guard Tekele Cotton. His 9.6 points per game seem perfunctory until you see him play defense.

Put simply, the WSU junior is the best on-ball defender in the MVC. He can take away a team’s best scorer, small or tall. He guarded Odum and Arop in the last year’s games and he’s also been the designated stopper on scorers like Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

“He’s a versatile defender and he definitely sets the tone for them,” Odum said.

The Sycamores’ advantage over the Shockers is their depth. ISU has scorers eight-deep into its rotation while the Shockers only go about six-deep in theirs. Moreover, the status of WSU guard Evan Wessel is probable. He missed Tuesday’s game against Bradley with an ankle sprain.

WSU has stopping power (it has held opponents to a MVC-low 60.7 points), but ISU’s multitude of options will test the Shockers’ defense. ISU leads the MVC in scoring at 76.7 points. It’s immovable object vs. irresistible force, MVC-style.

ISU has played in hostile environments before and responded well. Part of the current ISU roster won at No. 25 Vanderbilt in 2011-12 and nearly all of them had a hand in ISU’s 68-55 victory at Wichita State last year. ISU won at then-No. 25 Notre Dame in November when the Fighting Irish still had leading-scorer Jerian Grant calling the shots.

“I thrive off energy, whether’s it’s home or away crowd energy. I’m an emotional player and I love that stuff. I love playing in Wichita,” Arop said.

A win would continue ISU’s best MVC start since 1979 and an eight-game win streak would be its longest since it started 8-0 in 2005-06. ISU last won two in a row in Wichita in the 2000 and 2001 seasons.

 

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