TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State’s men’s basketball team is in a nexus between patience and progress.
With seven newcomers on a 12-man roster, the patience part of that nexus is obvious. Both the Sycamores’ players and coaches know full-well that having that percentage of newcomers on the roster means the Sycamores will still be a work-in-progress when they take to the Pauley Pavilion hardwood for Friday’s season-opener against UCLA.
Though ISU had summer practices, a Bahamas trip and preseason practice to gel, team chemistry just doesn’t click on command. It takes time. It takes trial-and-error. It takes a good share of failure before players get it right.. It’s hard. It can be frustrating, but Lansing feels that once the Sycamores work some of their bugs out, they have the talent to have a good season.
“I like them because they’re good people off the court and they’re good people. They have good chemistry off the court. What we’re struggling with is our chemistry and competitiveness on the court right now,” Lansing said.
In terms of minutes, ISU returns just 77.7 minutes per game from its 2011-12 roster — and 31.1 of those minutes were taken up by point guard Jake Odum. The junior has recovered from the plantar fasciitis that dogged him during his sophomore season and the first-team All-MVC preseason selection is the unquestioned cog of the Sycamores.
After that, the experience level drops off considerably. Forward R.J. Mahurin played 16.4 minutes per game in an injury-plagued sophomore campaign.
Mahurin’s a scorer (7.2 per game, but a team-high 18 points per-40 minutes) who will be counted on to help the Sycamores even more in that department this season. Guard Lucas Eitel played 13.3 minutes and will continue to provide depth to the backcourt.
The biggest uptick in minutes will come from ISU’s sophomore big men. When junior college transfer Mike Samuels broke his foot on the Sycamores’ August Bahamas trip (Samuels is likely out for the season), it gave Jake Kitchell and Justin Gant their chance to man the middle. Neither played more than 10 minutes per game last season, but that will change.
Which leaves seven healthy new players … and the heart of ISU’s quest for chemistry.
“Off-the-court, I think we all get along. On-the-court? Some guys are here, some guys are other places. It comes down to us older guys to hold everyone accountable and make sure everyone’s there, focused and ready to go. If everyone’s mentally engaged, that chemistry can come through practice,” Kitchell said.
Not all of ISU’s newbies are created equal. About the only thing ISU’s newcomers have in common is that they’ll make their Sycamore debuts on Friday. After that, given their differing levels of experience, the similarities end.
Swingman Manny Arop has Division I experience at Gonzaga and is an athletic talent who can shoot and is expected to produce immediately. Then there’s ISU’s two redshirt freshmen — point guard Devonte Brown and shooting guard Brandon Burnett. Both have had a year’s worth of time to absorb Lansing’s system.
Khristian Smith was also around for the entirety of the 2011-12 season, but couldn’t practice due to academic ineligibility. The freshman swingman might be ISU’s most gifted player of all.
Equally comfortable shooting or slashing to the basket, Smith is also learning to improve his defense. Junior college transfer Dawon Cummings has shown flashes of offensive and defensive prowess and is also expected to help immediately.
Finally, there’s true freshmen Rhett Smith and T.J. Bell. Both are forwards and both could be pressed into service given the injury-depleted frontcourt.
The different stage each player is at adds an element of difficulty to building chemistry. Lansing admitted that he detests “repeating himself” in practice. But also realizes that patience is virtue he and the coaching staff must show in the early stages of the season.
“It really is a process and it requires us all to be patient. We had Jake Odum play heavy minutes last year and no one else really did. We have a lot of inexperience. Guys are searching their way, finding their way, trying to find out what their roles are. They have to be able to trust each other. We have to hold each other accountable and trust each other on the court,” Lansing said.
Patience requires dealing with the adversity that patience requires. It’s inevitable that players are going to mess up. What you don’t want is for the mistakes to devolve into habits that can deep-six confidence and turn the season in the wrong direction.
“When things are going well, it’s easy to support each other. When things aren’t going well? Guys start worrying about their own selves. Then the communication level goes down. These guys aren’t selfish guys, they’re good guys, but on the court, they can be a little selfish,” Lansing said.
“That just means they’re worrying about how they’re doing too much. We’re suffering from that too much, but we’ll get out of it. They work hard and they listen,” he added.
Veteran leadership usually helps to smooth these issues out. ISU’s two Jake’s — Odum and Kitchell — have emerged as leaders.
“I think what the younger guys need to do is to listen well and get it right the first time. If they don’t have it, ask a question or slow things down a bit. That’s better than just going through it, messing it up, and then having coach have to explain it again. Make sure you have it before you go through it,” Kitchell said.
Odum — who said he wants to take both a vocal and a lead-by-example approach — thinks games will provide an impetus for chemistry.
“This time of year is the hardest grind of all, really. Building chemistry? You can do it in practice, but you have to learn it over games. You learn game-by-game on how guys move on certain plays, how they read defenses. Once we get past the early part of the year, we’ll develop chemistry even more than we have and we’ll move on,” Odum said.
If ISU can get the alchemy right, the Sycamores believe they can have a good season. ISU was picked to finish seventh in the Missouri Valley Conference and finished 8-10 in the MVC a year ago. However, ISU was just one missed bucket in the regular-season finale away from finishing in a tie for third place.
“We’re really talented. Honestly, if we can get everything right, the possibilities are limitless for this team,” Kitchell said.