News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 8, 2012

Juniors in name only: With no seniors, ISU underclassmen serve as mentors

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — They’re juniors officially, but seniors by proxy.

Indiana State’s men’s basketball team has no seniors on its 2012-13 roster. It has six juniors, but only three — Jake Odum, R.J. Mahurin and Lucas Eitel — have played a game for the Sycamores.

It means the experienced junior trio are two-year seniors of a sort. If it’s a thought that occurred to Odum, it’s one that took him aback.

“Don’t say that! Seniors? Wow!” Odum jested.

The truth is that Odum and his experienced teammates are well aware that the mantle of leadership falls upon them.

Fellow junior and Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop has spent a year in the program, but hasn’t played a game yet.

Junior college transfers Michael Samuels and Dawon Cummings are program newbies just as are ISU’s three true freshmen — Khristian Smith, Rhett Smith and

T.J. Bell.

With the Sycamores having so many new players to depend on — redshirt freshmen Devonte Brown and Brandon Burnett will also debut — the process of assimilation is the first brick the juniors have laid as far as their own leadership is concerned.

“I just have to perform on the court and show these young guys what to do, that’s how I plan to handle [leadership]. I have to let them know that just because they might be tired during a summer workout, everybody’s going through it,” Odum said.

The new NCAA summer workout rules — coaches are allowed to participate in two-hour-per-week chunks over eight weeks with the players — have helped the experienced players refine their own brand of leadership. Instead of trying to become leaders in the informal and often unorganized open-gym format of the past, their leadership can be forged in a more formal setting with supervision from the coaching staff.

ISU will get an additional 10 formal practices in preparation for its exhibition trip to the Bahamas in August.

“I like it a lot. It’s better when you have coaches in the gym, rather than working out on your own. They can teach you more and help you with your shooting form, things like that. The extra practices are going to help a lot, especially since we have so many new guys,” Odum said.

Mahurin, who along with Odum and Eitel spent one season as a redshirt, has been impressed with the work ethic of the new players. He mentioned that Rhett Smith already has the team-best bench lift.

“They’re really smart basketball players and we have a lot of athleticism. They work hard and they’re going to surprise people with how hard they work. You almost can’t tell they’re coming in from high school,” said Mahurin, who will get married to his long-time sweetheart a week before ISU embarks for the Bahamas.

Though the Sycamores and coach Greg Lansing have all remarked on the positive progress the team has made so far, it is just the summer, when hope springs eternal for all basketball teams.

Odum knows that what the Sycamores accomplish through their summer workouts must have some meaning once the season schedule rolls around.

“Toughness is going to be key with some of these freshmen. They haven’t played any games here before. It’s something I have to show these guys,” Odum said.

The toughness Odum seeks from his teammates is something he had tested himself during a trying 2011-12 campaign.

He entered the season with back spasms he suffered with during the run-up to the season. Shortly after the season began, he developed plantar fasciitis, but played through it. Odum also suffered with shin splints.

“The season was frustrating. It was such a day-by-day thing. One day I could feel great and the next day, you’d feel terrible,” Odum said. “It’s basketball and athletics. Every single person on the floor has something wrong with them at one point or another. [Playing through it] tests your mental capacity as to how you can perform [with an injury].”

After a month of rest, Odum is optimistic his aches and pains are behind him.

“I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I’m healthy, it’s the first time I’ve been healthy for the whole summer. It’s just good for the program and my health especially,” Odum said.

It wasn’t just injuries that tested ISU’s juniors-to-be in 2012. Though ISU finished with a winning record for the third straight year and a berth in the postseason, it was a letdown. ISU was eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference after having been picked a contender in third.

While the four seniors from that group moved on (though former center Myles Walker is still a Sycamore … on the football team), the juniors were left to learn the lessons from what didn’t go right last season and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“We learned from last year about handling situations and handling each other. I love all of the guys from last year, but something didn’t click right,” Mahurin said.

“I’ve been taking the off-season to figure out what it was. We had talent, we all liked each other, we just didn’t finish. That’s something we’re stressing a lot — finishing plays and not coming up short on anything,” he added.

Finishing strong was an emphasis of a team workout last Thursday. To wit, on an open drive to the basket, sophomore Justin Gant was urged to dunk the ball, not just lay it up.

Lansing feels the juniors are being heard by their teammates. If their ears remain open, he’s confident the Sycamores can achieve big things in the two years the juniors have left to lead.

“The new guys are listening and getting as much as they can out of it. It’s nice to know, in a year, we’ll have the same time. If we can keep these guys together and continue to improve, it could be an interesting couple of years,” Lansing said.