TERRE HAUTE —
“O beautiful, for spacious skies … for amber waves of grain.
“For purple mountain majesties … above the fruited plain …”
Those famous lyrics became less a declaration of America’s beauty than a commentary on the torturous journey Indiana State’s men’s basketball team unwillingly embarked on to get home from Hawaii.
The Sycamores saw nearly everything America has to offer in their return trip from the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Or at least, they flew over most of it.
The Sycamores literally went from sea-to-shining sea in a snow-distorted odyssey that took them from Polynesia to Philadelphia and several points in-between.
After it was over, it’s highly doubtful at the end of it that they felt God had shed his grace on thee.
HNL-PHX-PHL-ORD. Those aren’t airport abbreviations as much as code for how hellish things were for ISU as they tried to get back to snowy Indiana.
“It was a tough deal. There’s no question,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
It was already going to be a challenge to be fresh for today’s Missouri Valley Conference opener against Illinois State hot on the heels of a Hawaii trip. The travel nightmare the Sycamores suffered to get home added an unwelcome degree of difficulty to the proceedings.
“It was a long couple of days and a long couple of nights of travel. We were prepared [for delays], but it was a little worse than expected,” ISU guard Lucas Eitel said.
ISU’s plan leaving Hawaii was to catch a Tuesday night US Airways red-eye flight out of Honolulu, connect via Phoenix, Ariz., and return to Indianapolis on Wednesday morning.
Tuesday night’s snow storm that left Terre Haute mostly spared, but hit the rest of Indiana hard threw those plans completely out the window.
ISU got to Phoenix, but by then, ISU’s flight to Indianapolis had been canceled. ISU was then flown to US Airways eastern hub in Philadelphia with the hope that it could get on a flight to a still-open Indy airport.
No dice. After the long flight from Phoenix to the city of Brotherly Love, ISU landed to find out that the Indianapolis airport was closed. They had the choice to bus home to Terre Haute from Philadelphia — a 12-hour trip — or spend the night in Philly, fly to Chicago the next day, and bus to Terre Haute.
The Sycamores chose the latter and finally got back to Terre Haute around 2 p.m. on Thursday.
“At one point, we were traveling for 22 hours straight. It was a long ordeal and it was awful difficult on the guys. You play three games in four days and throw travel on top of that? Your body is messed up,” Lansing said.
Lansing consulted Butler coach Brad Stevens and Creighton coach Greg McDermott (who had a miserable travel experience when he was at Iowa State) for advice on how to handle the situation.
ISU did its best to minimize the hit from the travel woes. Practices on Friday and Saturday were light.
“We don’t want to use the travel as an excuse, but we went light the last couple of days. I think we all felt good [on Saturday] and we’ll be ready to play,” Eitel said.
The bad travel experience couldn’t come at a worse time. ISU will play three MVC games this week starting today against the cream of the conference.
Illinois State, today’s foe, was picked second in the preseason poll. Northern Iowa, Wednesday’s road opponent, was picked third. The week finishes with a trip to preseason favorite Creighton on Saturday.
The Redbirds (9-3) have a familiar cast of characters. Big man Jackie Carmichael is a four-year regular. Guard Tyler Brown has been a standout in the last two seasons. Jon Ekey provides veteran versatility. Bryant Allen, Johnny Hill and John Wilkins are all experienced.
The significant change for Illinois State is that Dan Muller is the head coach. Former coach Tim Jankovich left the Redbirds to become the head coach-in-waiting under Larry Brown at SMU.
Muller has changed Illinois State’s look from their days under Jankovich. The Redbirds mostly lived up to their billing with losses to Northwestern, Louisville (a three-point road loss) and unbeaten Wyoming.
“They ran a lot of sets [with Jankovich]. They ran the Iverson screen across the top a lot and they don’t run that anymore. More than anything, they run transition. They don’t get in the half-court very much. They run-it-and-gun-it quick. Our transition defense will be important,” Eitel said.
ISU (7-4) will have center Justin Gant in its arsenal as the sophomore suffered his own ordeal in addition to the Sycamores’ travel woes. Gant was elbowed in the mouth during the second half of ISU’s 57-55 victory over Miami.
Half of Gant’s upper front tooth was broken off and flew across the lane for ESPN’s slow-motion cameras to record for excruciating posterity. Gant left the game against the Hurricanes and had to endure the pain of his broken tooth on ISU’s long trek home.
On Friday, Gant had a root canal. He is no longer in pain and will have his tooth capped later this month. He won’t have to wear any protective gear other than a mouthpiece in today’s game.
It’s important for ISU’s fortunes that Gant builds on his strong performance in Hawaii. He had a double-double against Mississippi in the first game and was an aggressive presence in the paint against San Diego State and Miami prior to his injury.
“The coaching staff did a great job preparing us for the games and getting us ready for their tendencies. We stepped up to the challenge and showed we can play. We need to do more of the same thing starting tomorrow,” Gant said.