TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State’s men’s basketball team begins Missouri Valley Conference play today, but you’ll be forgiven if it doesn’t feel that way.
The Sycamores’ first MVC foe is Loyola — the first newly-minted member of the MVC since 1995. The Ramblers visit Hulman Center at 3 p.m. today.
It has the vibe of a nonconference game, but the Sycamores know they can’t bring a nonconference mentality into it.
“We think of it as a new season. We have to get off on a good foot and keep our defensive mentality up. We played pretty well defensively the last game. We want to keep that up,” ISU forward Justin Gant said.
While the Ramblers are something of a mystery, there’s one very familiar face on the Ramblers’ roster … Terre Haute native Matt O’Leary.
The forward makes an unexpected return to Hulman Center. When he committed to Loyola, the Ramblers were part of the Horizon League. Now the sophomore will get to play three games inside Hulman Center as a member of the MVC.
Gant was O’Leary’s teammate at Terre Haute North. They remain friendly and Gant said he’s looking forward to the match-up. They’ll get plenty of chances to lock horns. O’Leary has started three games for the Ramblers — including its most recent contest, an 83-69 loss at Fordham on Dec. 23 — and plays nearly 26 minutes per game. O’Leary is averaging 7.3 points per game.
“We text here and there. We tell each other good luck. We congratulate each other and there’s a little trash talk going here and there. We’re both excited to play against each other,” Gant said.
Gant said he and O’Leary have never played each other in competitive situation aside from scrimmages in practices. Though O’Leary attended Woodrow Wilson Middle School and Gant is an Otter Creek alumnus, they were in different grades, so they never played each other even at that level.
ISU coach Greg Lansing has kept tabs on O’Leary too. ISU did not recruit O’Leary — whose brother Chris is a wide receiver on the ISU football team — but that doesn’t mean Lansing didn’t like his skill-set.
“Matt is a great kid from a great family. We really liked him and wanted to recruit him, but sometimes it happens in recruiting that you don’t need a certain player at a certain position. I’m really happy for Matt to be with good people at Loyola. We hope he plays well except in the two games against us,” Lansing said.
Loyola (5-7) has struggled so far. The Ramblers are winless in five road games and their RPI is in the 300s. But on closer inspection, Loyola hasn’t been far off the mark.
All but one of Loyola’s losses were by less than 10 points including two overtime setbacks. The Ramblers have had trouble finishing teams off as they are 2-6 when leading at halftime. Loyola was outscored by 21.5 points in its last two losses against Northern Illinois and Fordham.
The Ramblers might be wearing out due to lack of depth. There are three Ramblers — Christian Thomas (33.5), Milton Doyle (32.2) and Jeff White (31.9) — in the MVC’s top 10 in minutes per game.
The Ramblers are also young. There are no seniors who play regularly and Thomas (14 ppg) is the only productive upperclassman.
Still, Lansing is wary of Loyola and he has a lot of admiration for Loyola coach Porter Moser, who makes his return to the MVC after he coached Illinois State from 2003-07.
“Porter was wronged at Illinois State. They had a good team with good players and it’s unfortunate how that happened,” said Lansing, referring to Moser’s dismissal in 2007. “I think of him as one of the originators of this ball-screen offense. He helped get it started. He tweaked it at Saint Louis when he was [an assistant coach] under [Rick] Majerus. Now teams all over the country, including us, are running it.”
ISU been successful in its MVC home openers in recent seasons. The Sycamores have won four MVC Hulman Center lid-lifters in a row.