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March 22, 2013

ISU's season goes from impressive feats to examining what happened

TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State’s 68-52 loss to Iowa in the National Invitation Tournament closed the chapter on the 2012-13 men’s basketball season. But the legacy of the just-completed campaign, and how it can be judged, might not be known until the conclusion of next season.

That’s when the whole story will be told of this ISU roster. All of the current Sycamores return to the fold next year.

Was ISU’s 18-15 mark a building block towards bigger things? Or is it the ceiling for this Sycamore roster? The just-completed season provides evidence that the Sycamores could go down either path.

ISU had near-unprecedented successes. Wins over Miami, Mississippi, Wichita State, Creighton and Iona — all NCAA Tournament teams — are a testament to what ISU was capable of.

ISU was in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference in the second week of February, a position it had not held that late in the season since 2000.

Successes? Yes. But was it a successful season? That depends on one’s point of view.

By the standard of preseason expectations — ISU was picked seventh in the MVC and had turned over much of its roster — it was certainly a success as the Sycamores finished fifth in the league.

By historical precedent, it was also successful, as ISU had its fourth consecutive winning season.

ISU hadn’t strung together that many consecutive winning campaigns since 1998-2001. It’s the only time in ISU’s Division I history that it’s had four consecutive postseason berths and it earned its first NIT bid since 1978.

But ISU’s 16-8 start, quality wins, MVC title contention, and the national notice that came with it, re-calibrated expectations among ISU’s fans. Viewed through that prism, ISU’s 2-7 finish cast a pall over a season that held so much promise.

“Everybody has to look in the mirror and that starts with me. We have to do things a little differently if we want to contend for a championship. We’ve got to be a little more resilient, we have to listen better, we have to be tougher,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.

What was hard for the Sycamores’ players to grasp was how their season turned the wrong direction down the stretch. Fatigue was an issue — ISU had been playing almost constantly since August — and some players who played more minutes this season hit the wall.

Whether physical fatigue led to mental fatigue and lack of concentration is a harder nut to crack. The focus and grind-it-out mentality that defined ISU at its best in 2012-13 was absent in the final third of the season.

Lapses on both ends of the floor became more frequent, and sometimes, as it was in the second half of ISU’s loss to Iowa on Wednesday, the lapses were rampant.

The Sycamores know it. They realize the things that went wrong in the final third of the season have to be fixed for the Sycamores to realize their potential.

“Everyone could have a million excuses to why we didn’t finish off the season right, but we’re not going to make excuses. Our coaches coach us not to make excuses. You just look at yourself and try to make an improvement,” ISU forward Manny Arop said.

Arop was candid about his own part in ISU’s late-season fade. His two-game suspension during the last week of the regular season threw the Sycamores for a loop just when they wanted to ramp up for a late-season run.

“I’m going to look at myself — I know I’m responsible for a big part of the way we finished the way we did. I’m going to do everything I can to be ready for next year and get my team ready to win a championship,” Arop said.

What needs to be done for that to happen? ISU has areas it needs to shore up. The Sycamores rated low in several efficiency categories offensively — the Sycamores were last in the MVC at 0.99 points per possession.

Largely contributing to that was ISU’s below-average shooting. ISU is 195th in the nation in shooting percentage (42.9 percent) and 257th in 3-point shooting (32.1 percent).

ISU made up for those percentages somewhat by getting to the line a MVC-best 717 times, but when ISU didn’t get to the line, its inconsistent scoring put pressure on its defense.

“We have to work on our shooting. Any time we can bring up our averages on the offensive end it’s going to make things easier and smoother,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said.

ISU was solid defensively. Opponents shot 41.5 percent against the Sycamores this season, good for third in the MVC, but ISU’s defense also slipped late as opponents shot better than 41.5 percent in four of ISU’s last five defeats.

But apart from what transpired on the floor, the Sycamores recognized that improvement is needed off-the-floor as well.

“As a leader I have to step it up some more. I wasn’t as good as I could have been this year. Holding myself accountable, along with the other guys, is something I need to do more of. We can’t have any slippage,” said Odum, who emphasized that the team needs to “go after each other” in off-season open gyms.

Players and Lansing agreed that accountability has to be demanded from players and coach alike. But that it still has to come from unity, not from divisiveness.

“It’s not so much as getting on players, but mostly to be positive,” said ISU forward R.J. Mahurin, when asked about how the team needs to create accountability.

“When [Iowa] made a run in the second half, you looked around, and we had some heads down, me included. I need to be able to step up and be positive. That’s what I’m looking forward to working on in the off-season. To be there for the guys,” Mahurin said.

Lansing is buoyant about ISU’s chances for next season — Fort Wayne guard Brenton Scott will be added to the mix, along with injured center Mike Samuels — but also recognized that ISU can’t follow the same blueprint it did this season and expect the results to be better just because everyone’s a year older.

“I got too negative with them in the last half of the year. I’ve been frustrated with the way they’ve played. It starts with me and the soon-to-be seniors and their leadership. We all have to change because there’s enough talent here to win our league,” Lansing said.

 

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