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December 25, 2012

Sycamores blossom on Hawaii trip

HONOLULU — Honolulu

Quick quiz … what’s the state flower of Hawaii?

Don’t worry. I can’t just rattle state flowers off the top of my head. I had to look it up too, even though I’ve seen them all over the place in Honolulu.

I didn’t even know that Indiana’s state flower is the peony, which replaced the apparently unloved zinnia in the 1950s.

Hawaii’s flower, and they’re ubiquitous in Waikiki tourist shops and in actual flora on Oahu, is the yellow hibiscus.

The yellow hibiscus is big, bold and bright. I’ve never seen one blossom, but I imagine it has to be a beautiful sight.

What I have seen blossom — and it’s the only reason flowers would be brought up in my column — is the Indiana State basketball team at the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

From the beginning, I expected ISU’s nonconference schedule to be a laboratory of sorts. With seven players who had never played a game in an ISU uniform, the process of building chemistry, feeling out what each player’s strengths and weaknesses are, etc., would be a game-by-game process.

So far, that’s exactly how its played out.

There have been surprises — a 20-point blowout win at Ball State (the Cardinals are bad, but ISU hadn’t won there since 1986 and had just three games under its belt at the time) and a riveting overtime loss at home to then-unbeaten New Mexico.

And there have been surprises of the ugly sort, most notably, a poorly played 71-63 loss at Morehead State on Dec. 8.

Even though I knew full-well that ISU would have its ups and downs during this process, it was still an open question for me going into the Diamond Head Classic whether to be buoyant about where ISU might be headed or have doubts.

I thought the Diamond Head Classic would serve as a litmus test of which direction ISU could be expected to go. It’s not the culmination of where ISU is headed because even though most of us think of things in a nonconference/conference context, it’s never that simple, and ISU will continue to grow and have missteps during the MVC campaign.

But as a time-marking exercise, it’s as good a time as any to take the Sycamores’ season temperature.

After an 87-85 overtime win over Mississippi and a competitive 62-55 loss to No. 18 San Diego State, I think ISU fans should feel good about this team.

While some of the on-floor performances have been strong — Justin Gant has played much better, for example — it’s more than that. I’ve spent a lot of time with the team in Hawaii and they’ve done a good job developing team chemistry.

Team chemistry is a murky concept. The trick of good team chemistry is to make sure that chemistry translates to the games. Plenty of bad teams have good off-the-floor team chemistry. ISU is better now than it was in November at recognizing at each other’s tendencies and playing to strengths. That’s been crystal clear in Honolulu.

“What I’ve noticed, especially in the last two games, is we’ve been building chemistry. That’s huge for us. It’s another step in the right direction,” ISU guard Jake Odum said. “We’re just about there, but not quite, that’s why we lose games like this [to San Diego State], but you learn something and then you take a step forward.”

Another sign of progress is buy-in on the defensive end. To be honest, ISU’s offensive execution against San Diego State — with 17 turnovers and a few questionable shots — should have doomed the Sycamores to defeat long before the final two minutes of the game. Neither players or coaches were happy with the way the offense was executed, even when taking the Aztecs’ defensive quality into account.

Yet ISU was able to stay in the game despite not playing well. ISU didn’t always get stops — the Aztecs were the best team ISU has played this season and they weren’t going to be held down forever — but they got enough to stay in the game.

It wasn’t enough against the No. 18 Aztecs, but it will be against lesser foes.

In fact, ISU’s performances in its two games would be good enough to win against nearly every MVC team. San Diego State is better than any team in the MVC … Creighton included.

But what’s really struck me is something I don’t normally get to see. I’ve done something on this trip I’ve not done in my nine seasons on the beat. I’ve walked over to ISU’s hotel from my own and I’ve rode the team bus to and from games.

You might expect that it would be joyous ride back to the team hotel in the wake of the win over Ole Miss on Saturday, but it wasn’t. It was quiet. It was all business. ISU expected to win and expected to beat the Aztecs on Sunday.

There was disappointment after the loss to San Diego State, but there was no overreaction. There’s still another game to play. The Sycamores have had a healthy, even-keel approach before and after games.

ISU has grown through the nonconference season and has blossomed in the first two games in Hawaii. It’ll be fun to see if they reach full flower when MVC play begins on Sunday.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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