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September 21, 2013

Indiana State basketball working hard to take next step in 2014

TERRE HAUTE — A lesson in life that nearly everyone learns is that a long period of good deeds can be ruined by a short period of bad ones.

Indiana State’s men’s basketball team learned that lesson the hard way during the 2012-13 season. The first three months of the season exceeded everyone’s expectations. The Sycamores earned wins — several of them convincing — over national powers Mississippi, Miami, Wichita State (on the road) and Creighton. The NCAA Tournament beckoned, if only the Sycamores could finish the job.

They couldn’t, and by mid-February, the bottom fell out. ISU lost seven of its last nine games, including a 68-52 loss at Iowa in the National Invitation Tournament.

The Sycamores have had six months to let the feeling stew. And they don’t like how they feel. Last year’s fade in central in their minds. Unlike last season, expectations will be high for ISU in 2013-14 and the Sycamores are determined to live up to them.

“We have a bitter taste with how last season ended. That’s not how we pictured our season was going to end,” said Arop, who was suspended for two games in late February. “We had high hopes and we didn’t reach them. That kind of disappointment drove us over the summer.”

Some Sycamores went on international trips (see related story), but those who didn’t went to work. The rest of the Sycamores were fixtures in the gym.

“I want them to get conditioning on the court with a ball in their hand. We have the new practice floor [in ISU Arena], which is a huge benefit to the program, so these guys are in a lot with us, they’re in a lot on their own,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.

“We have tremendous chemistry and really good leaders with four seniors and [Jake] Kitchell [a fourth-year junior]. Since the season ended, they didn’t feel they achieved the goals they wanted,” Lansing said. “As a coaching staff, we’ve been here long enough to where they know what they need to do. They got in here and worked. They’ve been energetic.”

ISU had its first full-team workouts last week. Besides center Mike Samuels, who is recovering from knee surgery, all Sycamores were healthy and participated.

Junior college transfer Demetrius Moore will be counted on to contribute immediately. Redshirt freshman T.J. Bell will be eligible and looked promising in early action. True freshmen Brenton Scott and Alex Etherington are also fully ingrained.

“Everyone’s fitting in. The freshmen are fitting in. They have bumps and bruises like every freshman does, but they listen well,” ISU forward Justin Gant said.

The offseason has changed for all college teams. Formal practice begins 42 days before the first (exhibition) game, which means a late-September start date for most teams. Teams get 30 practices between the first practice and the first game.

One thing Lansing likes about the change is that it spreads the practices out over a longer period and can prevent a team from getting tired, and peaking, too early.

“What we’re hanging our hat on is to earn the right everyday to compete for a championship. We get to start earlier and that allows us to give them more days off when we get going,” Lansing said.

Lansing said he learned a lot from last year’s experience too. As beneficial as the Diamond Head Classic was for ISU from a RPI standpoint, he’s relieved there’s no Christmas-time tournament just before the Missouri Valley Conference season.

The grind ISU had from late December seguing into the MVC might have tired the Sycamores out by season’s end. What might also help the Sycamores is the demise of BracketBusters. The MVC now has a more consistent two-game-per-week conference slate.

“We played at a high level at times last year, but we also learned lessons on how to be more consistent. I learned some lessons on some scheduling aspects,” Lansing said.

Not that this season’s schedule is easy. ISU plays just four nonconference home games and has trips to Notre Dame, Saint Louis and to Alaska in November. ISU opens with Tulsa in the Great Alaska Shootout, the Golden Hurricanes are one of the better teams in the field.

Early returns from national observers are optimistic about ISU’s chances. USA Today chose ISU to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. With MVC regular season champion Creighton off to the Big East, ISU is considered to be the primary MVC challenger to Wichita State, a NCAA Final Four team a year ago that has several pieces back.

Is ISU ready for the expectations? When picked as a MVC contender in 2011-12, the Sycamores didn’t handle it well and finished 8-10 in conference. But many of the players on the 2012 team, sophomores then, are seniors now, and they don’t want a repeat of that season’s failure.

“You want to be talked about like that. You want to be picked to win the conference and to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Lansing said. “That’s your goal at the end of the year anyway so you hope you accomplish those things. That means nothing until we start taking care of business on our own, but I think we should be pretty good.”

Arop is glad the Sycamores get another bite of the apple after it turned rotten on them last February.

“It was our motivation to get better and have this opportunity again. We’re blessed to have another chance, but those of us who are seniors, we have a sense of urgency. We want to go out on a good note,” Arop said.

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