News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 17, 2011

FROM THE PRESS BOX: ‘Yeah, but’ … maybe ISU is for real

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — I had an eighth-grade reunion in Milwaukee last summer, the highlight of 2010 for me. Among the memories we re-lived, I had totally forgotten that my seventh-grade teacher nicknamed me “Yeah But.”

As in, “Yeah, but …” I always seemed to have an argument for the answer he sought in class, whether my argument was right or not.

The Indiana State men’s basketball team has a lot of “Yeah But” in them, too, both in terms of how it’s perceived around the league and how it’s answering that perception with results on the floor.

The Sycamores currently have a 6-1 Missouri Valley Conference record, their best since the halcyon days of Nate Green, Michael Menser and Matt Renn 11 years ago. ISU has joined Wichita State and Missouri State among the three teams at the top of the MVC that have broken away to enjoy a two-game gap over the rest of the league.

It’s a start Sycamores’ fans should be geeked up about. And judging by a crowd of 6,080 at Hulman Center on Sunday, people are starting to take notice. Perhaps there will be a lot more fans there on Wednesday when ISU faces Missouri State at Hulman Center in a first-place showdown.

Still, you can hear the voices from around the league if you listen close enough …

Yeah … but.

The Sycamores’ victory over Creighton was an important first hurdle cleared in a crucial seven-game stretch where ISU’s opponents have a combined record of 35-12 (at press time). The fact remains that the combined records of the teams ISU has beaten in the MVC so far is 10-30. To paraphrase Shania Twain, that don’t impress observers around the MVC much.

Yeah … but.

ISU plays with an excellent team concept, but if the chips are down, do the Sycamores ever have a player on the floor at any one time that’s as good as the best player on the other team?

Those are criticisms one hears about the Sycamores. And there’s legitimacy in some of the ISU skepticism.

There’s no doubt that ISU has had a schedule that was more favorable than anyone could have dreamed. No MVC soothsayer could have predicted that winless Bradley and Illinois State would crater as both have.

But for league observers who cite the friendly schedule as a sign that the Sycamores might eventually fall apart, one has to look at the unlikely route ISU took to build its 6-1 record to begin with.

In the nonconference season, Jake Kelly and Dwayne Lathan were the unquestioned one-two punch in the ISU lineup. When Kelly went down after last playing on Dec. 18 and when Lathan suffered a concussion on Jan. 1, it could have been a mortal blow to ISU’s championship hopes. Teams with supposedly superior talent haven’t been able to cope with similar injury problems (see Braves, Bradley).

So ISU essentially had to rebuild its team on the fly. That’s not easy to do in the course of an offseason, much less during the season. The Sycamores have a great freshman to build around — Jake Odum — but ISU could have easily tanked in the face of adversity,  and no one would have batted an eye.

But the Sycamores didn’t. Aaron Carter stepped up his game big-time on both ends of the floor. Steve McWhorter, given major minutes, has blossomed into a tough-minded defender and occasional scorer. Carl Richard has been good all year and gives the Sycamores toughness in the paint.

On a game-to-game basis, ISU has had meaningful contributions from Myles Walker, Jordan Printy, R.J. Mahurin and Isiah Martin.

Those players were all supposed to be pieces of the puzzle, not the puzzle. So weak schedule or not, it’s easy to underrate how those players have seamlessly meshed in seemingly no time at all.

Now, with Kelly and Lathan back, ISU can put 11 players on the floor who can contribute at any given time.

In Sunday’s 61-59 win over Creighton, it happened to be Carter, McWhorter, Odum and Richard. Who knows who it will be next time? That makes the Sycamores very hard to defend.

And that feeds into the other “yeah, but” about ISU’s talent. You can point to any MVC team ISU has faced and make an argument that they have one or two players better, or who have the potential to be better, than any one ISU player.

Evansville has Colt Ryan. Bradley has Andrew Warren. Illinois State has Jackie Carmichael. Drake has Rayvonte Rice. Northern Iowa has Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Jake Koch. Creighton has Antoine Young, Doug McDermott, Kenny Lawson Jr. and Gregory Echenique.

Aside from Ryan, none of those players has gotten the best of the Sycamores. Many of them have struggled. That’s because the team concept that’s more obviously seen on the offensive side has taken hold on the defensive end too.

Sunday’s defensive effort on man mountain Echenique — a 6-foot-9 load who is going to be fantastic in the MVC when he matures — is a good example.

Walker did a good job following the scouting report to stay behind him and hold his ground. Meanwhile, ISU sent guards off the perimeter — primarily Odum — to bolt into the paint and harass Echenique when he put the ball on the floor.

The big man never got into rhythm. He had nine points, his lowest output in four games, and had five turnovers, his season-high, including a crucial giveaway with 2:30 left. With Kenny Lawson Jr. also a non-factor, Creighton had to rely too much on super freshman McDermott, who played well, but couldn’t carry the Jays over the hump.

ISU has been getting defensive contributions like that throughout its 6-1 start. Team defense goes a long way toward neutralizing individual one-on-one matchups.

ISU has a long way to go. The conference campaign doesn’t hit the halfway mark until the coming weekend. Maybe the “yeah, but” voices will turn out to be right.

But with every win and every step taken forward in the MVC race, ISU has had a rebuttal to every “yeah, but” thrown their way so far.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Please check out Golden’s Down In The Valley blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.