TERRE HAUTE —
Going into tonight’s game at Missouri State, Indiana State shares first place in the Missouri Valley Conference with Creighton and Wichita State. Of that, there’s no doubt.
But if you try to ascertain from opposing coaches why ISU is in the MVC’s penthouse? Aside from the brilliance of point guard Jake Odum, pinning down the explanation for the Sycamores’ success can be elusive.
“I don’t think there’s anything about Indiana State that jumps out from an offensive or defensive standpoint. They just play basketball the right way,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said.
Among the reasons ISU is in first place — with the tiebreaker edge over both the Bluejays and Shockers for the No. 1 seed in the MVC Tournament — is its bench.
The ISU bench is a microcosm of what the Sycamores have done right this season. There are no gaudy statistics to be found. There’s not a defined sixth-man role for Khristian Smith, Jake Kitchell, Dawon Cummings or Lucas Eitel.
But what all four players do is mold themselves into the Sycamores’ whole. They ensure that there’s little drop-off when they enter the game.
“It’s worked good this year because the bench trusts the starters and the starters trust the bench. About everyone has started at some point. We’ve all got confidence. We know our role is to supply that energy. The starters get it going and then we kind of feed into that,” ISU guard Eitel said.
And while each has a particular strength — Smith is a creator, Cummings and Eitel are shooters and Kitchell is a post defender — they also each bring something else to the table which makes them more than just specialty players.
“I think that’s why we’re a really good team; we have guys who can do a bunch of different things. When you sub someone, it’s not like you’re just getting a shooter or a scorer, you’re getting a defender too. We take pride in defense. We take pride in five guys playing defense,” ISU forward Smith said.
Eitel said a big key is team chemistry. ISU struggled with it a year ago, but have had much better inter-team relationships this season.
“It’s pretty rare, but everyone cares about each other. Even if I’m not having the best game, I’m pulling for Dawon or Jake. Even if they’re getting more minutes at the same position I play. And they do the same for me. That’s huge. Nobody’s worried about getting theirs,” Eitel said.
Every one of ISU’s four primary reserves has started at some point this season. ISU coach Greg Lansing said that role doesn’t matter as much as the end result does.
“They could be starting at other places,” Lansing said. “I consider them starters. They’re locked into what our plan is. They’re unselfish at the offensive end and they know their identity is to have an effect on the defensive end.”
Missouri State (7-18, 5-8) lost 79-50 at Wichita State on Saturday, but plays a similar motion offense/man-to-man defense style that can keep a game tight.
ISU’s 68-60 victory over Missouri State on Jan. 16 at Hulman Center was a prime example. The Bears led by four at halftime and pushed the Sycamores into the second half.
ISU was taken by surprise in that game as Missouri State unleashed forward Gavin Thurman for his first significant minutes. He had 18 points and has since added another scoring option for the Bears.
“They knocked us in the mouth,” Smith said. “They had us down four at halftime. Thurman is a good player. He knocked down some shots over me and I haven’t forgotten that. They set a lot of screens, just like Evansville, so we have to be locked in.”
ISU (16-8, 9-4) travels to Missouri State in the MVC pole position for the first time since 2011 and at the latest stage in a season since 2000. For the first time, ISU will be the hunted, not the hunter, and will get the opponent’s best efforts. Is ISU ready for that?
“We’ll find out. I want this program to be about contending for championships. These guys do too. Are we ready? We’ll find out. It’s not going to be easy,” Lansing said.
n ISU receives AP poll consideration – The Sycamores received votes and had five points in the Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday.
ISU received a 23rd-place vote from Mark Berman of the Roanoke (Va.) Times and 25th-place votes from Seth Davis of CBS and Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star.
ISU last received poll consideration in 2011 after its win over No. 25 Vanderbilt.
ISU at Missouri State
• Tipoff – 8 p.m. at JQH Arena, Springfield, Mo.
• Broadcasts – TV: Fox Sports Midwest. Radio: WIBQ-FM 98.5. Twitter: @TribStarTodd
• Last time out – ISU defeated Southern Illinois 66-65, and Missouri State lost at Wichita State 79-50 Saturday.
• Series – MSU leads 37-22. ISU defeated MSU 68-60 on Jan. 16. ISU has won two of its four games at JQH Arena.
• Indiana State Sycamores (16-8, 9-4) – G Jake Odum (6-4, Jr., 14.2, 4.3 rpg, 4.4 apg), G Devonte Brown (6-3, Fr., 4 ppg), F Manny Arop (6-6, Jr., 12.6, 5 rpg), F R.J. Mahurin (6-8, Jr., 9.8) and C Justin Gant (6-8, So., 7.9, 5 rpg) are possible starters. G-F Khristian Smith (6-6, Fr., 6 ppg), G Dawon Cummings (6-4, Jr., 5.5), G Lucas Eitel (6-2, Jr., 4.5), F Jake Kitchell (6-10, So., 3 ppg), G Brandon Burnett (6-6, Fr., 0.7) and F-C Rhett Smith (6-7, Fr., 0 ppg) are key reserves.
Coach – Greg Lansing (54-37, 3rd year at ISU).
• Missouri State Bears (7-18, 5-8) – G Marcus Marshall (6-3, Fr., 10.2), G Dorrian Williams (6-2, Fr., 4.5), F Gavin Thurman (6-6, Fr., 8.1), G Anthony Downing (6-1, Sr., 13.8) and F Keith Pickens (6-4, Jr., 5.3) are possible starters. F Christian Kirk (6-7, So., 8.1), G Nate Scheer (6-5, Jr., 4.9), F Drew Wilson (6-7, Fr., 3.2) and C Bruce Marshall (6-10, Fr., 1.7) are key reserves.
Coach – Paul Lusk (23-34, 2nd year at MSU, 25-57, 3rd year overall).
• Injuries – For ISU, C Mike Samuels (foot) is out. For MSU, F Jarmar Gulley (knee) is out.
• Next – ISU plays at Bradley on Saturday, and Missouri State plays at Southern Illinois.