News From Terre Haute, Indiana

From the Press Box

December 25, 2010

FROM THE PRESS BOX: ISU’s place in pecking order hasn’t changed

TERRE HAUTE — The nonconference portion of the college basketball season serves several purposes.

It’s a time to get the freshmen and new players acclimated. It’s a chance to test your team against programs both above and below your own caliber. It’s a chance to make some coin with a guarantee game or two.

But really, it’s a litmus test to find out how a team stacks up as it enters the real meat of its season — its conference schedule.

So what have we learned about Indiana State as Missouri Valley Conference play begins next Wednesday?

Not a whole lot, to be honest. That’s a good thing and a bad thing.

The Sycamores are 5-6, a disappointing record for those who had preseason visions of MVC contention dancing in their heads. Moreover, ISU’s performances in some of its losses have been supremely disheartening.

In my mind, MVC contention was a long-shot possibility at best. ISU always stacked up as a mid-level Valley team. I picked them fifth in the preseason poll. I see no reason why that isn’t still a realistic goal for the Sycamores. On the other hand, given ISU’s inconsistency, I’d be surprised if they exceeded it.

In other words, ISU is exactly what I thought they’d be — the Sycamores just didn’t take the path I thought they’d take to get there.

ISU’s efforts in losses to excellent high-major teams Notre Dame and Purdue would have been good enough to win against most Valley teams, home or away. On the other hand, the hugely disappointing efforts in losses to Eastern Kentucky, Ball State and Wyoming wouldn’t have beaten any Valley team, home or away.

The only two nonconference games that simulated a Valley contest were ISU’s game at Oral Roberts and its home game against DePaul — a Big East school with low-to-mid-MVC-caliber talent. To the Sycamores’ credit, they won them both, gutting out a tough one on the road at ORU and crushing the Blue Demons at home.

Hope among ISU fans going into the season rested in the fact that ISU has two legitimate All-Valley-caliber players in Dwayne Lathan and Jake Kelly. And the Sycamore pair has shown signs of brilliance.

They’ve also shown disturbing signs of not knowing when to mesh with their teammates and each other, trying to take over games to the detriment of the team and themselves.

ISU’s other players have been a mixed bag. Freshman guard Jake Odum has played well and has the excellent court vision most expected him to have. He’s going to be good.

Carl Richard has been a force on the boards and, if he can keep his back spasms in control, could be a revelation in the conference. Myles Walker, though not an immediate scoring threat, has also given ISU far more brawn on the boards in the paint than ISU had last season at the center spot.

Past that, no one else has been consistent. The 3-point scoring ISU has had in abundance in recent seasons has largely dried up. Part of it is that Jordan Printy has been hurt, but other shooters such as Aaron Carter and Koang Doluony have been cold throughout the season.

ISU’s saving grace in the Valley’s pecking order is that no other Valley team has really exceeded preseason expectations either.

There’s a reason for that — nearly every team has been equally mediocre so far.

The conference is suffering through its worst down year in a decade. At this writing, the Missouri Valley Conference is 13th among Division I conferences in the realtimerpi.com standings, looking up at conferences it normally surpasses by a wide margin, including the Ivy League.

Over the past several seasons, the MVC has typically been in the lower half of the top 10 by this point.

There are long-term ramifications for this down year — the biggest being that the MVC’s television contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports are up at the end of the season, and a down year doesn’t put the conference in a position of strength to re-negotiate.

But short-term, it means that teams — no matter how mediocre they’ve been in the nonconference — have hope going into the Valley season. No team has proven to be unbeatable.

And in a way, that should give ISU fans some comfort — even if the nonconference season provided little but a sense of uncertainty.

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