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October 31, 2013

TODD GOLDEN: Munn, Odum want to make paper accomplishment a real one

CHICAGO — When it comes to Missouri Valley Conference Media Day, it has historically been a kick in the gut for Indiana State's basketball teams.

But not this year. For the first time since formal MVC preseason polls began in the mid-1980s, the Sycamores rule the MVC roost.

With the ISU women picked to win the conference and with the men picked to finish second, ISU shared the preseason MVC polling "title" with Wichita State as the team predicted to finish highest in both genders. The Sycamores and Shockers were 1-2 in both the men's and women's polls.

The ISU one-two was the best combined predicted finish the ISU men and women have ever had. By far.

The men's and women's teams have rarely been predicted to be good at the same time. Their previous best combined preseason prediction came in 2012 when the men were picked third and the women fifth.

In fact, 2012 was the only time prior to this season that both programs were predicted to finish in the top half of the league in the same season.

The low expectations ISU's men have endured over the years play the biggest role ... ISU's men have only been predicted to finish in the top half six times since 1986. League soothsayers have placed the ISU women in the top half just 10 times in 30 seasons.

But that's all history. ISU's men and women have earned the preseason respect of peers around the league in both coaching and media circles.

The only trouble? It's a paper accomplishment. No one cares if you "win" the preseason poll. The only thing that matters is where you stand in March.

The good news is that ISU's men and women's teams each have a senior All-Conference player to guide them through the forest of expectation, a place many teams get hopelessly lost trying to navigate safe passage.

Anna Munn and Jake Odum were named to their respective All-Conference teams and each of them know the preseason poll is a barometer, but it's no way to take a team's temperature. Not now. Not in March.

"It's a big honor to have people recognize we're a top team in the league, but it also comes with sacrifice and working hard to prove those people right," Munn said.

Both Munn and Odum embraced the preseason expectation, but not without knowing the pitfalls a high predicted finish can bring.

Odum was a sophomore when ISU was picked third in 2012. The Sycamores came home a disappointing eighth with an 8-10 record that was not up to the NCAA Tournament aspirations most placed on them entering that season.

He's a wiser senior now. He knows the devil is in the details.

"I'm learning that everything needs to be done the right way, every day. It comes down to every single drill, every single shot, really. If you pay attention to detail like that, you can meet expectations," Odum said.

Odum, and the rest of the Sycamores, have also learned how quickly seasons can turn for the good or ill. In 2011, ISU suffered a mid-season slump that knocked the Sycamores off most people's radar despite mid-season MVC title contention. So when the Sycamores pulled it together and won the MVC Tournament, there was surprise elsewhere in the league. Conversely, ISU fell from a similar perch last February and didn't recover.

"The guys got a taste last year of being at the highest high, but then going to the lowest low in two or three games. Trying to be a leader and letting these guys know what needs to be and how it needs to be done is something I need to work on. I haven't been too great at that," Odum said. "In my opinion, I've been a good leader as far as on the floor playing in the games, but I need to take that to the practice floor."

For Munn and the ISU women, preseason expectations are new. ISU was last picked to win the MVC in 2006 and has not been chosen higher than third since. No one on the current roster has ever been picked higher than fifth in the MVC.

So the mission for Munn is a bit different from Odum. It's all about striking the balance between embracing the expectations, but being humble enough to not let them overcome the Sycamores.

"I need to help the team stay grounded and not take anything for granted. We can't say we're No. 1 and then not work hard. In all actuality, it should be our motivation to work even harder to prove those people right and to say that we deserved this," Munn said.

ISU is fortunate. On paper, it could be one of the best basketball seasons in ISU history. With the presence of Munn and Odum, as well as their veteran teammates, both teams are well-placed to live up to unprecedented expectations.

If they stay focused, stay healthy, and stay the course, it could turn those paper expectations into a glorious reality for both ISU teams come March.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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