WICHITA, Kan. —
It’s hard not to get excited about today’s Missouri Valley Conference summit meeting between co-leaders Indiana State and Wichita State. Who wouldn’t be?
It’s a battle of league unbeatens. It’s on national TV. It’s being played at Wichita State’s Koch Arena where decibels are on steroids. It’s likely to be Indiana State’s best chance of ending WSU’s unbeaten run on its home floor.
We love the hype. Fans should embrace the hype because games this special don’t come around that often.
But when you get past the breathless excitement, what’s really on the line?
It isn’t ISU’s NCAA hopes. At least it isn’t as far as it being a make-or-break game. ISU has little to lose at-large-wise if it loses today. By no one’s definition would it be a “bad loss.”
There’s everything to gain, of course, as a win vaults ISU into the NCAA Tournament conversation, but it won’t be a fatal loss. ISU likely does need to beat WSU to put itself in at-large consideration, but the better shot comes Feb. 5 when WSU visits Hulman Center.
There’s so much to do between now and March for the Sycamores to be locked into a good or bad fate. We know that from the experience of last season. In mid-January 2013, ISU hadn’t definitively entered the NCAA Tournament picture yet much less exited it.
There’s little pressure on the Sycamores. Few expect ISU to win. If they don’t? Those same few will barely bat an eye. If there’s any pressure at all, it’s on Wichita State to keep its undefeated run intact.
So what’s on the line? Respect. And not the respect of beating an unbeaten team on their home floor — though that would be a nice cherry on the sundae for ISU — it would be another step in the respect the program has gradually gained over the last half-decade.
And this time, the step ISU can take is to cement itself not only as an MVC contender this season, but to be perceived as an MVC title threat for years to come.
Since the 2009-10 season, when ISU began its current run of four straight winning seasons, a streak that will likely reach five by this seasons’ end, the Sycamores have re-built, brick-by-brick, the respect that the program surrendered through a three-decade stretch where it had four winning seasons (all from 1998-2001 when Nate Green, Matt Renn, Michael Menser and company restored pride) in 30 years.
That respect has come in baby steps. A winning season first in 2010, an MVC Tournament title and NCAA bid in 2011, playing and beating highly ranked teams in 2012 and 2013. Sure, ISU has stubbed its toe along the way at times and the speed of ISU’s progress hasn’t pleased all, but the trajectory of ISU’s program has been on the up for nearly a half-decade now.
Slowly, but surely, national pundits have taken notice. ISU is spoken of in far more glowing terms than it was in the late 2000s when its lack of success made it an afterthought. With each upset win, the wins become less an upset than an on-the-rise program making its move toward relevance.
But that respect doesn’t come instantly and it usually doesn’t come with one win. Today’s game offers a rare exception, especially taking into account the current lay of the land in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The departure of Creighton left a void in the Valley. The Bluejays’ exit not only took away a perennial conference title contender, but also took away the security blanket the league has had in the last decade of having at least two teams it could depend on not only to make an NCAA tournament run, but to serve as a bell-weather program for the league itself along with Wichita State.
No one — aside from Shockers’ fans — want a scenario where Wichita State lords over the MVC as Butler did in the Horizon League or as Gonzaga did for many years in the West Coast Conference. The Shockers need a foil. Why not Indiana State?
There’s an MVC power vacuum to be filled. Not everyone is ready to wrap their arms around the fact that Indiana State can be the team to fill it. Skeptics abound. Many are still on the fence and await ISU to make that MVC breakthrough.
That opportunity is there today. A win over the Shockers on their home floor would cement ISU as an MVC alpha dog. A program that is capable of anything. A program that is capable of competing with WSU for the MVC title to the bitter end. A program that escapes the shadow of being an emerging team to one that has arrived.
A loss certainly wouldn’t wipe away the progress ISU has made. Far from it. The beauty is that ISU gets another shot at WSU in Terre Haute on Feb. 5.
But let the possibilities of an ISU win today dance in your head. The reward could be considerable. It should be fun.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.