Omaha, Neb. —
The Missouri Valley Conference is hush-hush on how it puts together its matchups for the annual conference schedule. But if you’ve been following the league long enough, you can certainly derive a pattern.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Creighton’s home game against Indiana State at the exact mid-point of the season — broadcast on ESPN2 — was no coincidence.
Hot on the heels of an NCAA Tournament appearance and a third-place finish in the MVC last year, ISU was picked third by the Missouri Valley Conference coaches, media and sports information directors. The MVC assigned ISU six national and regional television appearances in anticipation of a league championship run. Creighton was the preseason favorite.
Creighton and Indiana State? On Dec. 27, it was must-see TV. At the time, these were two teams seemed destined for greatness.
Ummm, make that one team. Creighton comprehensively defeated ISU 75-49 at CenturyLink Center on Saturday.
While No. 18 Creighton enjoys national darling status as it climbs its stairway to the stars and bright lights of a likely NCAA Tournament bid, the Sycamores are hurtling out of control in the other direction.
ISU is on a collision course with an ignominious and wholly unexpected return to an appearance in the MVC Tournament’s Thursday play-in round. Once a time-dishonored ISU tradition, the Sycamores had hoped it had put its Thursday-in-St. Louis sojourns behind them, but just when you think the Sycamores are out, Thursday night keeps trying to pull them back in. Lately, with the gravitational force of the sun.
The facts are dire. The Sycamores are 2-7 at the midway point of the season. ISU has already exceeded its MVC loss total from last season, and it finds itself two games out of the safe zone to avoid the MVC Tournament play-in round.
Statistically, it’s not hard to discern how the Sycamores got in their bind. They don’t defend consistently, especially on the road, as ISU is eighth in conference-only scoring defense and sixth in conference-only field goal defense, one year after ISU led the MVC in the category. ISU is dead-last in conference-only scoring at 64.8 points and ninth in field goal percentage at 40.2 percent.
Anyone who says they saw the Sycamores’ fall coming is either Nostradamus incarnate or lying. I picked them second, and four MVC observers picked them to win the league. But the rot has been evident from the beginning of the MVC schedule and it seems many of the players still haven’t recognized it.
It’s an article of faith that the Sycamores will snap out of their doldrums, despite massing evidence to the contrary. There’s still a pervasive belief that their recent run of poor play — ISU has lost five in a row — is an aberration and that the “real” Sycamores will emerge and claim their rightful place among the MVC’s better teams.
“Our offense is fine. There’s some small things we need to care of. The big things will take care of themselves,” ISU center Myles Walker said.
On a certain level, you can’t blame the players. It’s always better to hold on to hope than to wave a white flag of surrender. But ISU’s run of poor play has gone on too far long to merely be a slump or an aberration.
At some point, you are what your record says you are. Halfway through the MVC season the standings don’t lie, they not only say, but scream to the mountain top, that ISU is a ninth-place team. The Sycamores are the mid-season MVC disappointment by a landslide.
Belief can be good, until it clouds judgment to the point where it morphs into delusion. ISU players walk that line. Offensively, ISU’s post players too often avoid going strong directly to the basket and take lower-percentage shots that have never given them more than mixed success during their careers — Myles Walker’s back-down turnaround post jumper and Carl Richard’s fadeaway jumper race immediately into mind.
The guards too often get caught up trying to hurry up the offense when the team’s defense gives in, and the resulting quick and forced shots just make the ISU predicament worse. ISU’s 67-54 loss at Illinois State on Wednesday was just one example of this.
A more disturbing pattern is that shots aren’t falling even when the offense isn’t trying to hurry. ISU made 4-of-16 from 3-point range against Creighton. ISU has failed to shot 30 percent or better from 3-point range in three of its last four games.
“I have this masters degree in counseling and I’ve been using that more than I’ve been coaching,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said after the Creighton game regarding ISU’s shooting woes. “I don’t know. Shooting is a lot between the ears. If its not going on, you doubt it a little bit, but as a basketball player, you have to be confident. If you miss 10, you have to know you’re going to make the next one.
“Get in the gym and shoot more shots at game speed,” Lansing added. “Have some toughness. I think that’s a toughness thing. As a tough player, you go back and defend on the other end. You don’t let missed shots affect you and we let way too many missed shots affect us. We miss a lot of easy ones and our shooting percentage shows it.”
ISU’s defensive fall has been shocking. ISU’s players talk constantly about wanting to be a sub-40 percent defensive team … and they had shutdown ability in the nonconference season. Ask Vanderbilt. Just five weeks ago, the Sycamores clamped down on them in their own quirky house. That seems like five decades ago given what’s happened since.
Talk hasn’t translated into results, and more disturbingly in some games, it hasn’t translated into effort either. And as Lansing pointed out, the Sycamores are susceptible to letting their offensive problems create defensive ones.
If the players don’t recognize these shortcomings, they’re bound to be repeated, no matter what the coaches tell them. And the fight to get out of Thursday night will be a futile one.
Music fans might know reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross. It’s a great song, covered by countless other artists including 70s eccentric maverick Harry Nilsson. As he sometimes did, Nilsson changed up Cliff’s original lyrics a bit and put his own spin on the song. Among the added lyrics was this …
“Many, many rivers to cross … but just where to begin …I’m playing for time … there are times when I find myself sitting in limbo.”
That’s where the Sycamores find themselves right now. Until they recognize that they’re going to have to work their way out of their predicament and drop the notion that a return to success will happen on its own, ISU will continue to “sit in limbo”.
On Thursday … in St. Louis. The MVC’s embodiment of purgatory. Or hell, given the heavenly expectations ISU had going into the season.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (812) 231-4272. Please follow Golden on Twitter@TribStarTodd.