No matter which teams Indiana State played in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, the Sycamores knew they were in for a grind.
Three games in four days is a grind for any team.
Added to that was the advanced degree of difficulty ISU set itself up for when it beat Mississippi 87-85 in the opening round on Saturday. That meant ISU had the chance to face No. 18 San Diego State in a semifinal. The Sycamores fought tooth and nail with the talented Aztecs before they fell 62-55.
ISU will finish off the Diamond Head Classic against Miami. Win or lose, the twice-beaten Hurricanes will give the Sycamores another strength-of-schedule boost. The Hurricanes (8-2) are currently No. 7 in the RPI.
ISU’s win over Ole Miss helped the Sycamores blaze a trail into the top 100 in RPI and ISU will likely stay there for awhile as it doesn’t play any weak RPI teams until the second week of January.
ISU hasn’t played three quality teams in a row as it has in Hawaii in many, many years. But playing these teams isn’t enough. ISU wants to beat them. The disappointment after the loss to the Aztecs on Sunday was palatable, but the desire to finish 2-1 in Hawaii is strong.
“It’s crucial [to finish 2-1], especially with those tough conference games coming up. This stretch where we play three games there and then have three games [in a week] in conference, they’re all tough. We’re growing and we’ve been fighting these teams. We have to take positives from it,” ISU forward R.J. Mahurin said.
Those tough conference games are Illinois State at home on Sunday and then at Northern Iowa on Jan. 2 and at Creighton on Jan. 5. All three were picked in the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference.
ISU has shown that it can compete with teams that would be contenders to win the MVC in Hawaii. And while any talk of a moral victory against San Diego State was unwelcome in the Sycamores’ locker room, there was the acknowledgement that the team has grown during the course of the nonconference campaign.
“We’re absolutely better. We weren’t the team we are now at all [at the beginning of the season]. We had good players and we were young,” ISU guard Jake Odum said. “We’re still young, but we have 10 games under our belt. As these games go on, it’s cool to see how much we’ve improved. That’s a good sign because it keeps motivation in the locker room.”
Like the other two teams the Sycamores have played, the Hurricanes are formidable inside with big men Kenny Kadji (11.7 ppg) and Julian Gamble (5.3 ppg). Both are 6-foot-10.
But the Hurricanes aren’t as towering as they might have been. Starting center Reggie Johnson is not expected to play due to a thumb injury. The senior has averaged a double-double at 12.6 points and 10.1 rebounds.
Miami sorely missed Johnson against Arizona on Sunday. The No. 4 Wildcats outrebounded the Hurricanes 46-20 to advance to the Diamond Head Classic championship game.
Miami, whose only other setback was a 63-51 loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 13, still possesses plenty of weapons. A familiar name is guard Shane Larkin, Miami’s second-leading scorer at 14 points per game. He is the son of Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who has attended the games in Honolulu. Larkin has converted 48.7 percent of his 3-point shots.
Fellow guard Durand Scott leads the Hurricanes at 16.1 points and is good on 45.5 percent of his threes. Miami shoots 36.2 percent from 3-point range overall.
The game is being played at 2:30 p.m. local time in Honolulu. Shortly after the game is over, the Sycamores will depart for the Honolulu airport to catch a late flight back to the mainland. Barring weather problems, they expect to arrive in Terre Haute on Wednesday.