ST. LOUIS —
When you’re getting ready to play the No. 2 team in the country — the undefeated No. 2 team in the country and the best Missouri Valley Conference team in a generation — the unwritten rule says you’re not supposed to rile them. That you’re not supposed to poke the hornet’s nest.
After all of this time, after he’s had so many doubters over the years, after he’s overcome the lesser perceptions of others repeatedly on the basketball floor, do you really think Indiana State point guard Jake Odum believes in unwritten rules?
He’s been shattering them all week in the run-up to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Before ISU even knew its Arch Madness opponent, Odum was talking up his desire to get a piece of the monolithic Shockers.
He’s got them now. ISU’s 62-59 MVC Tournament semifinal victory over Southern Illinois on Saturday at Scottrade Center sets the Sycamores up for the challenge of a lifetime. The chance to knock 33-0 Wichita State from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Odum refuses to shrink from that challenge. He wants it. He welcomes it. Every word, every action from him screams … “bring it on.”
You’ve got to love it. Coming from any other Sycamore, you might think it foolhardy on a Don Quixote scale. Coming from Odum, and knowing the influence he has on his teammates, and even his coaches, you know there’s a chance, just a chance, it will provide the iron for ISU’s steel.
“I mean, you’ve got to have confidence. This is what you play the game for. I don’t know about the rest of these guys, but I’m sure they’re thinking the same thing. I’ve wanted a piece of Wichita State ever since they got us at our place,” Odum said.
Odum isn’t trying to disrespect the Shockers. He feels they’re “the best team in the nation.” But he doesn’t feel the Sycamores are as light years’ behind WSU as most do.
“We feel like we can compete with them. We know we’re right there,” Odum said. “We’re looking forward to it. Our goal when we got here was to meet up with them in a championship and give it all we’ve got. That’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
Odum’s bravado — not just in regards to Wichita State, but throughout the tournament — has lifted his teammates. He was much more demonstrative than usual Saturday. Motioning to the crowd after big buckets, Odum wanted everyone to know he could carry the Sycamores on his back.
“We’ve seen the Jake we saw during his freshman year in this tournament. It’s fun to watch. He gets that look in his eye and you know he’s carrying us and we have no other choice but to ride him and follow him. It’s really contagious. We fight hard and dig deep with him,” ISU swingman Khristian Smith said.
Odum’s cocksure attitude is so infectious even mild-mannered Greg Lansing is getting in on the act, albeit cautiously.
“He’s competitive. Anybody that plays this game goes, ‘I want to play them again when we get to St. Louis.’ And we’ve done enough to do that. Be careful what you wish for, though,” Lansing said.
“We’re going to give it everything we have, and it’s not good enough, they go into the tournament undefeated with a great chance to win the whole thing. If it is good enough, we’re going to get in there and do something too,” Lansing added.
Odum’s confidence has been forged by years of hearing his share of doubters.
When he was at Terre Haute South, he was constantly being undervalued in comparison to supposedly superior guards he faced in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference. On arrival at ISU, he had to fight off the idea that a freshman couldn’t lead a team on the floor and that he couldn’t be versatile enough to be dangerous both as a distributor and scorer.
His entire career has been defined by dispelling doubters. No one thinks ISU can beat Wichita State today. Another set of naysayers, another perception Odum wants to smash into pieces.
It’s going to be the hardest one to pull off of all. Wichita State made mincemeat of Missouri State in Saturday’s other semifinal. The 67-42 final wasn’t close to being indicative of the Shockers’ dominance. The Shockers have virtually no weaknesses.
To knock off the Shockers might be the greatest challenge ISU has faced as a team since the 1979 NCAA championship game. They are the Death Star of the MVC. They’ve annihilated all before them.
But ISU has a Luke Skywalker … Odum. May the force be with him.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at 812-231-4272 or email@example.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.