DES MOINES, IOWA —
The last time Indiana State’s men’s basketball program defeated a ranked team, then as now, its next Missouri Valley Conference game was a trip to Drake.
The Sycamores defeated No. 25 Vanderbilt 61-55 in Nashville on Dec. 17, 2011 and were riding high with an 8-2 record.
After struggling in a home win against a Louisiana-Monroe team that ultimately finish 3-26, ISU started the 2011-12 MVC season with a Drake debacle. ISU was picked apart by the Bulldogs 79-64. The game started a downward January 2012 spiral in which the Sycamores would lose seven of nine games.
It’s a coincidence that tonight’s 7:30 p.m. trip to Drake comes on the heels of ISU’s 68-55 victory at No. 15 Wichita State.
The evisceration suffered at the hands of the Bulldogs last season has nearly been forgotten. ISU’s mindset, chemistry and focus is far different than it was when the Sycamores last visited Des Moines.
The current group of Sycamores have honed their sense of purpose. By Thursday’s practice, the memorable win at Wichita State had been put in the memory banks.
What wasn’t forgotten were the times the Sycamores let their guard down and allowed inferior opponents – notably Morehead State and Southern Illinois – to get the better of them.
“We’re doing such a great job of staying focused. We had that big win at Wichita, but we’ve already changed our mindset. We’re getting ready for Drake. As a team, we’re getting better on focusing on each opponent. We can’t overlook anyone or take them lightly,” said ISU forward Justin Gant, who said he’s recovered from a stomach bug that dogged him at Wichita State.
One of the most encouraging signs for the Sycamores is Manny Arop’s continued improvement. He had 17 points to lead the Sycamores (14-7, 7-3) Tuesday against the Shockers and has hit a nice sweet spot between being productive offensively and defensively.
But for Arop, it’s not enough.
“I have to rebound. I have to help out our bigs on offense and defense. It’s something I need to focus on and bring my game up,” Arop said.
Drake (10-11, 4-6) is better than the Eagles or the Salukis and capable of beating any MVC team. Evidence of that came on Jan. 23 when the Bulldogs upended Creighton 74-69 at Knapp Center.
Since the last time ISU saw Drake, the Bulldogs lost all-everything swingman Rayvonte Rice to Illinois and also lost talented guard Karl Madison to a knee injury. Drake got center Seth VanDeest back after he missed 2012 with an injury.
Inside-outside forward Ben Simons (14.1 ppg) leads Drake’s attack. Guards Chris Hines and Micah Mason are newcomers who have contributed immediately.
But the guy often overlooked on the Bulldogs is blue collar forward Jordan Clarke. His work ethic gives the Bulldogs a cornerstone to build on. He’s averaged 8.5 points and 8.1 rebounds.
“I’d take Jordan Clarke any day of the week. He’s a tough physical presence. He has to guard really good players in this league. The presence he brings with his leadership and toughness is a key for that team,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
ISU has sickness to overcome. Jake Odum missed practice Thursday with a stomach ailment, but is expected to play tonight. Drake’s Daddy Ugbede injured his thumb during a practice this week and is not expected to play.
n Harrowing flight – What is it about big ISU victories and nightmarish air travel? After a three-day long odyssey home after a 2-1 performance in Hawaii’s Diamond Head Classic in December, ISU had more air trouble Tuesday flying back from Wichita, Kan.
On approach to Indiana, ISU’s charter plane allegedly hit wake from another jet. Severe turbulence and altitude loss occurred for several seconds before order was restored.
“I’ve been in some rough ones, but it was pretty bad,” Lansing said. “I didn’t have my seatbelt on when the first one hit. I was talking to Lou [Gudino, Associate Head Coach], and I went up in the air! I grabbed that seatbelt with both hands and got that thing down in there.”
“I was scared for my life,” Gant said.
Some of the Sycamores were so shaken by the flight that they requested to eschew the planned charter flight Friday to Des Moines in favor of a bus trip.
“We joked around practice that we wouldn’t need our ID’s because we were going to bus to Drake,” Gant said.
But ISU flew its charter as scheduled Friday.
“I told the guys, ‘The pilots don’t want to die either. If they say we can go, we can go,’” Lansing said.