News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 23, 2009

TODD GOLDEN: Sycamores are where they should be entering MVC play

By Todd Golden

TERRE HAUTE — The nonconference season is essentially over (save one BracketBusters game in February) for the Indiana State men’s basketball team.

So what do you think?

The Sycamores’ 8-3 record is right about on the money where I expected them to be. I figured ISU would drop a couple of games in the Preseason NIT, though I didn’t expect one of them to be Coastal Carolina — the Chanticleers, by the way, are currently 10-2 with one of the losses to Duke.

I also figured ISU would drop another game along the way, most teams do, but figured it would be one of its road games, not a home loss to Ball State.

So, to channel Dennis Green, the Sycamores are what I thought they’d be … better than last season.

IUPUI coach Ron Hunter thought so, too, after ISU defeated the Jaguars 72-59 on Wednesday and avenged a 62-41 loss suffered one year earlier.

“They’re a much better team than they were a year ago. Much better. Jake Kelly does a good job for them, but they have some other guys who can play,” Hunter said. “Last year we pressed them and they looked like they wanted to turn it over. This year, they were ready for it and weren’t afraid of it. We played Drake, and Drake’s a good basketball team, but I think Indiana State is better.”

So what does 8-3 mean going into the Missouri Valley Conference season?

Very little, other than avoiding the negative vibe of a poor start, such as the one ISU had last year. Your mileage may vary, but a good nonconference record doesn’t always translate to conference success.

Recent ISU teams have taken good records into Valley action before. The 2006-07 Sycamores — Royce Waltman’s last team — were 7-3 in nonconference games and started 5-1 in the conference that season before falling apart with 14 losses in its last 16 games.

The 2005-06 Sycamores did even better, with a 7-0 mark entering nonconference play. However, a David Moss hamstring injury morphed that season out of recognition as an 0-for-January killed what could have been a promising campaign.

ISU point guard Harry Marshall was a freshman on the 2007 team. He knows that the real work is ahead of the Sycamores.

“We’re 8-3, but if you lose a couple in a row in conference, you’re right back to .500. We need to forget about the nonconference,” Marshall said. “We’ve gone into conference in a good way before and gone downhill. I feel good about this team, though, and hope we can sustain [what ISU has done] throughout the conference.”

The jury is still out as to where ISU fits in the MVC pecking order this year. The Sycamores were picked seventh in the league, I personally picked them sixth. Though ISU is unquestionably better than last season, so is the rest of the league, and other than Missouri State’s surprisingly good start and Creighton’s struggles, most league teams are playing to form so far.

Northern Iowa has probably been best of all at 8-1, with wins over Boston College, Iowa, Iowa State and a good Siena team. Wichita State is 11-1 and has won nine in a row, including a victory over ranked Texas Tech. The Shockers are not to be slept on. The surprising Bears are 10-1, finally losing a game in overtime to Arkansas on Tuesday.

Illinois State is 9-2 and Southern Illinois is 7-2, though neither has a win that jumps out. Creighton is 5-6, but the Bluejays aren’t going away. Three Creighton losses were to ranked teams and the other three setbacks were all on a neutral floor or on the road.

ISU is probably better than Bradley (5-5), Drake (5-7) and Evansville (6-4), but is not so much better that they couldn’t lose to any one of them, especially on the road.

In other words, ISU is going to have to fight again to try and finally escape the MVC Tournament play-in round. Good nonconference record or bad, the song remains the same.

n Nonconference MVC awards — Most MVC teams are done with their nonconference slates, so there’s no better time than the present to give some early season awards:

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n Player of the Nonconference — Kevin Dillard, Southern Illinois. It’s hard to argue with Dillard’s numbers. He is second in the MVC in scoring (15.9), first in assists (5.9), first in steals (1.9) and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s just a sophomore, folks.

n Coach of the Nonconference— Cuonzo Martin, Missouri State. A no-brainer. Martin has the Bears at 10-1, a major surprise. Martin’s even-keeled style is paying dividends.

n Freshman of the Nonconference — Colt Ryan, Evansville. Ryan is third in the league in scoring, sixth in assists and seventh in steals. Give the Batesville native the nod.

n Newcomer of the Nonconference — Dwayne Lathan, ISU. Lathan is the only newcomer in the conference in the top 10 in scoring and rebounds and is 12th in field goal percentage. No homerism here, Lathan stands out above the newcomer crowd. Lathan would also be a prime candidate for Sixth-Man Award.

• • •

• Ex-ISU player Mick Yelovich blasts off — Former ISU center Mick Yelovich has made a name for himself on golf’s long-drive circuit. If you want to see just how far Yelovich has come, check out ESPN2 on Christmas Day.

Yelovich, who graduated from ISU in 2008, competed in the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship in Mesquite, Nev., in October. He was one of eight world finalists. He qualified in August with a drive of 372 yards (!) at a qualifier in St. Louis.

I’m not going to give anything else away, other than to say Yelovich’s long-drive exploits will be aired at 2 p.m. on Christmas Day on ESPN2.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com.