TERRE HAUTE —
The progress Indiana State’s men’s basketball team has made over the last two weeks is considerable.
The Sycamores own three wins over teams that were in the RPI top 50 at the time the teams were beaten. ISU has won four out of its last five, with the only setback a close loss to No. 19 San Diego State in Hawaii.
The reward for ISU is that it’s ranked in the high 20s or low 30s in the RPI, depending on which method is used. Its strength of schedule is even better, ranking near 20th in the nation.
While it’s absurdly early to put much stock in RPI rankings on Jan. 2, on their current path, the Sycamores would be in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Sycamores’ recent success is that they’ve enjoyed it despite the fact that there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
ISU has not always played its best, and yet, has found ways to win. While that’s been an encouraging sign, the Sycamores can ill afford to let anything slip as it heads to Northern Iowa at 8 p.m. tonight for its first MVC road game.
“Oh man, there’s so much room for improvement. I think we’re so far away from our potential. We realize that and that’s why we haven’t been paying too much attention to these last few games,” ISU forward Manny Arop said.
Sometimes teams will ride a collective hot hand to string together a series of wins, but that hasn’t been the case for the Sycamores.
While players like Justin Gant and Devonte Brown have made significant improvements, others, like Dawon Cummings and Khristian Smith, have struggled from the field.
Cummings is 3-for-18 from the field in ISU’s last three games. Smith has averaged three points per game and is 6-for-30 from the field in ISU’s last four games. Both, however, have made their presence felt on the defensive end.
“The nice thing about these guys is they realize they can improve. All of them can get better, coaches included. I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of how good we can be. The harder we go at it in practice, we’ll get better faster too,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Other regulars have struggled at times too. Jake Odum has admitted after recent games that he could play better. Arop has also forced the issue offensively at times, though both players have been very valuable at other times.
“They’ve talked to me about reading the defenses better. I need to get my feet in the paint and create more. We’re talking about reading and reacting,” Arop said.
Within the Missouri Valley Conference, ISU’s team stats are pedestrian. ISU ranks seventh in scoring (68.4), eighth in scoring defense (66.2) and ninth in scoring margin (+2.2) and shooting (42.1).
Despite being one of the top three RPI teams in the MVC at present, the Sycamores only rate in tje top three in two team statistical categories: rebounding (second at 36.5) and defensive rebounds (second at 26.4).
Northern Iowa, picked to finish third in the MVC, has a veteran team as all five of its starters have significant experience.
With their veteran presence, the Panthers loaded up their nonconference schedule. UNI (7-6, 0-1) went 0-3 at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas and also lost to Iowa and UNLV. The Panthers defeated George Mason and St. Mary’s.
The Panthers opened MVC play at Wichita State on Sunday and struggled badly in a 66-41 loss. At one point, the Shockers led by 30 as the Panthers struggled mightily to score. UNI had just 18 points at halftime.
Despite the heavy loss, UNI coach Ben Jacobson remained high on his team
“I don’t think you can beat a team like St. Mary’s a week ago and have a game like this, then start to wonder how good you are,” said Jacobson after Sunday’s loss, as reported by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier. “I don’t think that’s an issue right now, at all.”
Lansing feels the same way. Much as ISU does, UNI wants to grind games out. UNI also tries to limit possessions, so each trip down the floor has to be valued by the Sycamores. Turnovers, in particular, have to be kept to a minimum.
Though they are prone to offensive lapses, the Panthers are a tough out, despite the fact ISU has won three of the last four in the series.
“We have to be patient and we have to defend for a longer stretch. They’re not a team like Illinois State where they’re looking for transition. They’ll grind us, so we need discipline on defense,” Arop said.
ISU split the series with UNI last season with each team winning on its home floor.