Cedar Falls, Iowa —
In many respects, it’s been an Indiana State men’s basketball season like no other in its recent history.
ISU rolled to a 7-1 start in the Missouri Valley Conference. Going into Tuesday’s game at Northern Iowa, the Sycamores had won four road conference games for only the second time since 2001. Indiana State also was in a position for its first “true” top-half finish in the league since 2001. ISU finished in a tie for fifth last season, but had the No. 6 seed in the MVC Tournament.
But in other respects, ISU’s season was like some of the others that preceeded it. ISU is barely above .500 overall, and a loss on Tuesday would have put the Sycamores in jeopardy of not finishing above .500 at all.
ISU also has had good MVC starts before in recent seasons, only to have them wash away in a depressing mid-season losing streak. As if on cue, a five-game losing streak took ISU out of title contention in late January.
And though four conference road wins are never anything to sneeze at, the teams ISU beat away from Hulman Center are in the bottom four of a conference that’s suffering through one of its weakest seasons in recent memory.
So even though ISU’s game against UNI was a fight for third place in the MVC, you got the sense that there was something about this season that screamed for a victory over the Panthers to make it stand out above the others.
Not just for the 76-74 victory that virtually assured ISU that it will be the No. 3 seed in St. Louis (at this writing, Creighton can catch ISU, but its nonconference strength of schedule is miles behind the Sycamores’), but mission accomplished for changing the paradigm of how the ISU program is perceived.I can count on zero fingers the times ISU won a road game it had to win in similar circumstances since I began covering the team in 2004.
When the chips have been down — and that’s been rare with the losing teams ISU has put on the floor in the last 10 years — ISU has never shown the rest of the league that it can win when it counts. So the rest of the league yawns and presumes the Sycamores are destined for a mid-pack fate … at best.
That changed on Tuesday.
It’s easy to forget, but it’s not as if ISU hasn’t before been in a position where it had to win a big road game during the final week of the regular season.
In 2008, ISU went to Northern Iowa with a chance to avoid the MVC Tournament play-in round, lost 73-58, and fell to Missouri State in its home finale to be damned to the play-in, and ultimately, a losing record. In 2009, a hot ISU team went to Wichita State with a chance to avoid the play-in and lost 76-70. In 2010, ISU went to Illinois State with a chance to avoid the play-in, lost 75-58, but beat Missouri State on a buzzer-beater at home in the finale to finally escape playing Thursday night in the tournament.
This time, with the stakes higher, ISU pulled it off. And the Sycamores did it when they had plenty of reasons not to. It was Senior Night for a UNI group that was one of its most successful in team history — though you wouldn’t have known it by a shockingly low 4,419 attendance.
UNI was wounded without heart-and-soul post player Lucas O’Rear, but it had been almost a month since O’Rear got hurt and the Panthers had started to show signs they were learning to play without him. UNI point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe had averaged 25 points in his previous two games and is on the short list of MVC Player of the Year candidates.
Moreover, ISU had embarrassed UNI 70-45 at Hulman Center on Jan. 7. There was no way the proud Panthers would let that happen again, would they?
The Panthers played much better than they did all those weeks ago in Terre Haute, but the Sycamores were the tougher team in UNI’s building. The Sycamores couldn’t pull away from the Panthers, but ISU also seemed to come up with a play that kept UNI from getting any traction.
It was the sum of the Sycamores’ parts that carried the day.
ISU coach Greg Lansing had complete trust in his bench and was rewarded with a 40-point performance. ISU’s players may slip in or out of the rotation over the course of the season, but Lansing never seems to lose faith. Jordan Printy, who struggled through an ankle-injury-plagued season, was given the minutes to pour in 17 points Tuesday. Koang Doluony and Lucas Eitel, both of whom have had their shares of DNP’s this season, were on the floor in the final minute when the game was on the line.
Much of ISU’s toughness came from its young players. Point guard Jake Odum did what ISU fans have come to expect on a nightly basis. He had 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds.
Many of Odum’s assists were undefendable. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a point guard commit to a pass so late after leaving his feet, often for cross-court heaves, baseline leaps out of bounds and other acts of derring do. You watch Odum and you begin to think that gravity and the laws of physics are for lesser men.
But fellow redshirt freshman R.J. Mahurin was plenty tough himself. He hit several big outside shots, par for the course with him, but also had four rebounds and even tipped the ball away from Ahelegbe to set up an ISU bucket at one point. Freshman Steve McWhorter also hit some big shots, and Eitel, fresh off the bench, made two huge free throws with 32 seconds left.
Toughness. With it comes respect and ISU won some of that on Tuesday too. One Iowa-based MVC media member told me he thought the Sycamores could be the favorite to win the league next year. ISU players who were previously anonymous to the rest of the league are now considered future assets. That’s what winning does.
Beating UNI to clinch third place is a major leap forward. If ISU can win on the home floor of the two-time defending champions, who’s to say the Sycamores can’t win in St. Louis during the MVC Tournament? ISU is the No. 3 seed, and all but two of the MVC Tournament champions since the tourney moved to St. Louis in 1991 came from the top three seeded teams.
For the first time since 2001, ISU fans can dream the NCAA Tournament dream in St. Louis. Will it happen? Who knows? But for once, it’s not a far-off pipe dream.
And if that doesn’t change the paradigm for ISU, I don’t know what does.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or at email@example.com. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.