TERRE HAUTE —
Mastery of a basketball season comes in many forms. Mostly, it comes in forms that involve avoidance of turnovers, anemic scoring and poor defense.
The mechanics of X-and-O success in basketball are obvious, but what’s often overlooked in building a successful campaign is managing the rhythm of the season, which is the hardest thing of all.
Timing is everything, and no matter how good a team may be, if it’s off at the wrong time, the entire year can be morphed into something uglier than it really was. Conversely, if a team that has struggled to find itself hits its sweet spot at just the right time? It can turn an average season into something special.
There’s no better example of that than where Indiana State’s men’s basketball team finds itself as it heads to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament on Friday.
For the first two-thirds of the season, the Sycamores were the surprise team in the Missouri Valley Conference. Picked seventh in the preseason, ISU rose to first place and held on to it as late as Feb. 12. Conference wins over Wichita State and Creighton — both ranked at the time of the victories — harkened great things for the Sycamores come March.
Only it rarely works that way. Since Feb. 12, ISU has won just once and hasn’t won at all against MVC competition. Mixed in have been lackadaisical efforts — in particular, in losses at Bradley and at home to Drake.
Adding salt to the wounds was a suspension for second-leading scorer Manny Arop, a blow the Sycamores could ill afford to absorb when they were trying to get their sea legs to finish the regular season on a strong note.
The Sycamores’ 76-57 beatdown of Creighton at Hulman Center on Feb. 6 — when there wasn’t a cloud in the Sycamore sky — seems so long ago.
Mired in a five-game MVC losing streak, and buoyed by the expectations built up by ISU’s success in the first part of the MVC season, some Sycamores fans are despondent. On a MVC-centric message board, one ISU fan called it a “miserable nightmare of a season” — one in which ISU clinched its fourth-straight winning season.
But when a team doesn’t get the timing right, as ISU has failed to do in the last third of the MVC season, perception becomes reality … no matter what facts fly in the face of emotion.
Right now, all hope seems lost. But the wavering faith ignores the one and only tried-and-true trait of the 2013 Missouri Valley Conference season.
That nothing has been tried-and-true in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The MVC has always been described as a conference where teams beat each other up and that anyone can win from the first team down to the tenth. There’s always been a kernel of truth, but honestly, in most seasons, the teams that play on Thursday night in St. Louis have thoroughly deserved to be there. There’s a reason no play-in team has won at Arch Madness since 1998.
But this season might finally be the one where all of the old Valley parity chestnut rings true. The 2013 MVC season has been absurdly unpredictable. Who knows what to expect when the games begin on Thursday?
That’s the lifeline for ISU as it limps into Scottrade Center on Friday. Things are going badly now, but there’s been few seasons where so many teams’ fortunes have turned on a dime so quickly.
Take Wichita State. A week ago, as of this writing, they were all but anointed as presumed MVC champions. The Shockers only had to win one of their two remaining games to clinch the title. WSU then lost at home to Evansville and were beaten at Creighton. So much for the anointing.
Take Illinois State. The Redbirds started 0-6 in the MVC … guaranteed Thursday play-in material in any other season. But the Redbirds rallied to finish 8-10 in the MVC. They will kick back in their hotel room and relax on Thursday — the first time a team that started 0-6 avoided the MVC Tournament play-in round.
“The Valley’s all about making runs. Illinois State started off poorly and [finger click] like that … they turned it around. We made our run in the beginning. We’ve had our lull lately, but we know what kind of team we can be. In the middle of the season, everyone saw it. We’ve been working to get better every game. I think we’ll be prepared to make a run,” ISU guard Lucas Eitel said.
Things are bad for ISU right now. The Sycamores have had their turn in the doldrums. But the Sycamores are capable of recovering too. And if this MVC season has taught us anything, it’s that no team’s fate is written in stone.
No one stated it better than ISU point guard Jake Odum did on Tuesday.
“People can look at it as going into the tournament on a losing streak, or, you can look at it as that we’re due to come around and be successful. We’re a better team than we’ve been playing like lately. It’s going to even out,” Odum said. “I really believe we’re going to go into St. Louis and win this first game [against Evansville on Friday] and continue winning throughout the tournament.”
This MVC season is defined by teams turning on a dime at the right time. The Sycamores are overdue for a good spin of their own.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.