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January 19, 2014

FROM THE PRESSBOX: Time for constructive criticism, not panic for ISU

WICHITA, Kan. — I said before Indiana State’s Missouri Valley Conference showdown with Wichita State that there would be no need to hit the panic button if the Sycamores lost at Koch Arena on Saturday.

I’m sticking by it ... even if it was really tempting to avert one’s eyes during an ugly ISU second half in a dominant 68-48 win by the unbeaten Shockers.

It wasn’t pretty. It was in front of a national television audience, and maybe the Sycamores proved they need more time to be ready for prime time. Whether one agrees with those conclusions or not, it’s a perception the Sycamores are just going to have to deal with after the loss.

Despite all of that, the Sycamores (14-4, 5-1 MVC) are still a very good team. Saturday’s loss broke a seven-game win streak. ISU has won 12 of 14 games, instead of 12 of 13. Nothing to sneeze at.

If ISU fans want something to make them feel better, ISU is currently the highest-rated Indiana team in the RPI. So there’s that.

But before I stray too far into Kevin Bacon in National Lampoon’s “Animal House” territory — “all is well!” — the Sycamores are not above some constructive criticism.

ISU coach Greg Lansing preaches toughness on a constant basis and he’s right. But what does toughness mean?

For one, ISU’s players — roster-wide — need to get mentally tougher about following the game plan. ISU got itself into trouble Saturday when it got too impatient offensively.

Lansing was more blunt. He called it “selfish.” Fair enough. Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet taught them a lesson in this. He waited to pick his spots and picked the exact right time for the exact right feed or drive.

But that’s just one example. Part of following a plan is putting in the effort — physical and mental — to do so. I’ll give an example.

I often hear Lansing exhort his guards to “throw it inside!” When I hear this, I’ll look down the floor and I sometimes have the same vantage point as ISU’s guards do from the perimeter to look inside. When I see what they see, I sometimes see that there’s no post to feed. They’re either fronted by a defender or they’ve floated out to the perimeter.

The culpability goes both ways — the guards need to reverse the ball, penetrate, etc., to create space/draw help for the posts — but it’s incumbent first on the posts to fight for position and for the ball. I don’t see enough of that.

If I had a collective criticism of Justin Gant, Jake Kitchell and Demetrius Moore, it’s that they let defenders dictate the game to them instead of trying to dictate the game themselves.

In an ideal world, ISU’s posts would not only expect the ball, but demand it. If you’re not fighting hard enough to get the ball, how can the guards be expected to feed it to you? Why should they? Actions speak louder than words, and if your actions aren’t demanding the ball, regardless of whether it’s the over-arching philosophy of the offense or whether the coaches telling players to throw it to you, it’s going to be a problem. Supply has to have demand.

Another is knowing your role. It would be a gross overreaction to suggest ISU shouldn’t shoot 3-pointers after one 5-of-20 performance. The 3-point shot has served ISU very well and it will continue to.

The rub is who’s shooting it and when. ISU has shot the ball so well from 3-point range — and has pulled some games out of the fire via the 3 — that it risks becoming a matter of diminishing returns when too many Sycamores are trying to get into the act. There are Sycamores floating out to the 3-point line who shouldn’t have a 3-point shot in mind as their first option.

Moore jumps to mind. He’s drifted out to the perimeter more and more of late. Yes, he hit a 3 against Missouri State on Wednesday, but that’s not where’s he’s valuable. He’s deadliest when he’s getting the ball near the basket where he can put his excellent finishing (he might be the best big man finisher ISU has had in my 10 years covering the team) to good use and to maintain a balanced attack. He did that in December and missed just six shots from the field in five games.

It shouldn’t be Gant or Kitchell’s first option, even though both are perfectly capable of hitting them. Their 3-point shooting should be secondary to their inside scoring — at least to start out, not the other way around.

Devonte Brown’s first option shouldn’t be a 3-pointer. To be fair to Brown, I don’t think this occurs too often. Sometimes it’s when he can’t get the ball inside, but he’s most effective as a driver who can get to the line consistently ... sometimes at will. When in doubt, Brown should drive.

Working on things like this are what good teams do to get better. And it’s on the players to get tough enough to do it.

The Sycamores know this. They’ve been working on defense in recent weeks ... and have been getting better. An unfortunate part of ISU’s loss on Saturday is that a solid first-half defensive effort was forgotten in the wake of WSU’s second-half tsunami.

The Sycamores will be fine. There’s no reason to panic. But constructive criticism can’t hurt either.

n Can WSU go 18-0? — As the season goes on, the question is going to get asked louder and louder ... can Wichita State go 18-0 and run the table in the Missouri Valley Conference?

Absolutely they can. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money down on WSU pulling it off. No MVC team has made it through the Valley unscathed since Hersey Hawkins’ Bradley team went 16-0 in 1986.

Besides their dogged determination, what makes the Shockers so good is how well their talents complement one another. VanVleet is the kind of point guard who’s just as effective relying on patience and skill as graft (see arm-bars in Saturday’s game). Nothing wrong with any of it. He’s smart enough to take what’s given to him and he’s tough as nails.

Tekele Cotton can stop anyone. Ron Baker can hit shots in his sleep. Cleanthony Early provides the inside punch, and Chadrack Lufile cleans up the mess.

Reasons for concern? WSU isn’t deep, and if the Shockers have any injuries they will suffer. Another concern I saw was when its guards penetrated — Cotton mostly — they could get away with throwing up some bad shots because they knew Lufile or Early was on the weak side to get an offensive board. I think that might catch up to WSU at some point.

But in reality? The MVC is weak and WSU is very strong. A danger point for WSU is a week where it goes to ISU and Northern Iowa, but Gregg Marshall has made his multi-million-dollar bones getting his team fired up for challenges like that.

It’s going to take a MVC team to be at its best and WSU to be at its worst to knock them off. How often does that happen? Two or three times a year tops?

I like the Shockers’ chances.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

 

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