Cedar Falls, Iowa —
It’s early, but after two Missouri Valley Conference games; there are just two players who are in the top five in points and rebounds in MVC games.
One of them is All-American and national Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott from Creighton.
The other is Indiana State’s Justin Gant.
The sophomore from Terre Haute has been the revelation of ISU’s three game win streak and its run of five victories in six games.
Gant has averaged 18.5 points (fourth in MVC-only stats) and 8.5 rebounds (fifth) during ISU’s 2-0 MVC start.
Gant’s MVC-only numbers give striking evidence to his improvement when compared to his overall season statistics. Gant is averaging 8.2 points and 5.9 rebounds overall.
It’s clear that the ISU center has stepped up his game.
“He’s been our MVP. He’s been our best player, especially from Hawaii on,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said.
“He’s been outstanding for us. He’s been aggressive. He’s been taking his opportunities, he’s been flying around on the rebounds, and imposing his will,” ISU center Jake Kitchell said.
Gant was pivotal in ISU’s 65-61 victory over Northern Iowa on Wednesday. He had 18 points and six rebounds.
In a game of few runs, Gant provided the most important points for the Sycamores. He scored eight of ISU’s first nine points to start the second half as ISU built an eight-point lead that UNI would threaten, but never breach for the remainder of the game.
He also converted a three-point play that blunted a first-half UNI rally.
“He had a great game. He’s tough to guard because he can space the floor and hit a 15 to 20 footer,” said UNI post player Seth Tuttle, a fellow sophomore who will have some entertaining battles with Gant in the coming seasons.
Something clicked for Gant at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii — he had his first career double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in ISU’s 87-85 overtime victory over Mississippi on Dec. 22.
Gant has not slowed down since. He had another double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) in ISU’s 77-75 victory over Illinois State on Sunday. Gant has six career double-digit scoring performances … three have come in ISU’s last five games.
“I attribute it to my teammates. We’ve been going after each other and making each other better,” said the soft-spoken Gant.
ISU coach Greg Lansing thinks that Gant is growing more comfortable in his abilities and with his role on the team. He’s played more comfortably in the paint and has been far more aggressive with his rebounding and taking the ball to the basket. But not to the point where he’s abandoned his outside shot.
“It’s like he’s enjoying it more. He’s enjoying being around the guys more. He’s enjoying practice more. He’s always been a good player, but I now I think he likes competing against these players he’s going against and having success,” Lansing said.
Gant admitted that he’s enjoyed the competition this season and relishes the challenge to match or exceed his foes.
“I think its fun to play against all of these big-time guys on these other teams. It’s fun to get that kind of competition going,” Gant said.
Missed in the scoring and rebounding is Gant’s improvement defensively. Lansing said that for as valuable as Gant has been on the offensive end, he’s even more vital on the defensive side … and not just in the post.
“We switch everything with him. He guards some of the best guards in the league as well as anyone on our team except Devonte [Brown],” Lansing said. “He’s smart, he knows the guys’ tendencies, he makes them take a tough shot and doesn’t give them a second one. His real value to our team is even more on defense.”
Another obvious benefit to Gant’s emergence is that it makes ISU much harder to guard. The Sycamores already had a mix of drivers and shooters, but with Gant able to post-up inside, ISU has to be accounted for defensively everywhere on the floor.
“If he continues to be a focus for other teams down low, it opens things up for everyone else. If he keeps being as tough as he’s been, he’ll be getting some awards at the end of the year,” Odum said.
• Lansing success against UNI — Lansing seems comfortable coaching against his friend Ben Jacobson. Lansing is 4-1 against Jacobson since he became head coach prior to the 2010-11 season. ISU has won two of three in Cedar Falls under Lansing, who is an Iowa native.
ISU also has three wins at UNI’s McLeod Center. ISU joins Creighton, Drake and Wichita State as teams with three wins at the facility since it opened in 2006.
• Mitchell waylaid by sickness — UNI’s ability to dent ISU’s lead was hampered by the absence of guard Deon Mitchell for much of the second half.
Jacobson explained after the game that Mitchell had been sick after UNI’s 66-41 loss to Wichita State on Sunday and had missed practice on Monday. Jacobson said Mitchell had been feeling better, but had a relapse of his illness late in the first half. Mitchell played just four minutes in the second half.
Mitchell is UNI’s most effective driver ... an element the Panthers missed in the second half.
INDIANA STATE (65) — Arop 4-9 1-2 9, Gant 8-12 1-1 18, Cummings 1-4 1-2 3, Odum 3-8 9-13 16, Mahurin 1-2 2-3 4, Kitchell 2-4 4-5 8, Eitel 1-2 1-2 4, Brown 0-1 1-2 1, Burnett 0-0 0-0 0, K. Smith 0-3 2-2 2. 20-45 FG, 22-32 FT, 65 TP.
NORTHERN IOWA (61) — Mitchell 2-5 2-3 6, Tuttle 9-14 4-7 24, Koch 3-7 1-1 8, Sonnen 1-3 0-0 3, James 6-16 0-0 12, Rank 1-1 2-4 5, Bohannon 1-5 0-0 3, Buss 0-1 0-0 0, Morrison 0-1 0-0 0, Martino 0-1 0-0 0. 23-54 FG, 9-15 FT, 61 TP.
Halftime score — ISU 37-32. 3-point goals — ISU 3-10 (Gant 1-2, Eitel 1-2, Odum 1-1, Arop 0-2, Cummings 0-2, Mahurin 0-1), UNI 6-19 (Tuttle 2-2, Bohannon 1-5, Sonnen 1-3, Koch 1-2, Rank 1-1, James 0-4, Mitchell 0-1, Buss 0-1). Rebounds — ISU 32 (Gant 6, K. Smith 6, Arop 4, Kitchell 4, Team 3, Cummings 2, Odum 2, Eitel 2, Brown 2, Mahurin), UNI 29 (Tuttle 10, Koch 7, James 6, Rank 4, Bohannon 2), Assists — ISU 5 (Odum 2, Cummings, Eitel, K. Smith), UNI 12 (Koch 5, James 4, Mitchell 2, Tuttle), Steals — ISU 9 (Odum 5, Arop, Mahurin, Kitchell, Brown), UNI 9 (Koch 3, Mitchell, Tuttle, Sonnen, Rank, Bohannon, Buss), Blocks — ISU 2 (Eitel, K. Smith), UNI 0, Turnovers — ISU 14 (Arop 3, Odum 3, Cummings 2, Kitchell 2, Brown 2, Gant, K. Smith), UNI 15 (James 6, Rank 2, Mitchell, Tuttle, Koch, Sonnen, Buss, Morrison, Team), Total fouls — ISU 17, UNI 22. Fouled out — Tuttle, Bohannon. A — 4035.
Next — ISU (9-4, 2-0) plays at Creighton on Saturday. UNI (7-7, 0-2) plays at Illinois State on Saturday.