TERRE HAUTE —
When Indiana State visited Evansville on Jan. 4, the defensive plan was relatively straightforward.
Worry about prolific scorer D.J. Balentine, but worry more about letting any of the other Purple Aces join him on the scoring sheet.
Balentine scored 23 points, but the rest of the Aces’ starters scored 19, and ISU earned an easy 81-62 victory at Ford Center.
This time that task is going to be a lot tougher as Evansville visits Hulman Center at 7 p.m. tonight.
Why? Center Egidijus Mockevicius might be playing better than any player in the Missouri Valley Conference at present.
The 6-foot-10 Lithuanian native has given Evansville a solid one-two scoring punch it has lacked for some time. In his last four games, Mockevicius has averaged 16.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. He’s converted 24 of 35 from the field during his hot streak.
Caliber of competition hasn’t mattered. Mockevicus has kept cruising along.
In Evansville’s 84-68 loss to No. 3 Wichita State on Sunday, Mockevicius had 19 points and 10 rebounds against one of the most imposing front lines in the league. He made all seven of his shots.
Mockevicius has come a long way since his comparative meek effort against the Sycamores. He struggled badly with shot and scored eight points on 2 of 5 shooting in the Aces’ loss. But those days seem to be behind the improving center.
“I think he’s playing the best basketball of his career. His last four or five games have been outstanding. He does so many things that don’t show up on a stat sheet with his presence inside. Even when he’s not blocking shots, he has the ability to change shots. He’s more athletic than anyone wants to give him credit,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said during the MVC teleconference.
ISU coach Greg Lansing and the Sycamores’ post players both know it’s going to be a tough task to keep the Aces under wraps.
“He’s been a lot more productive and he’s crashing the boards better. He’s averaging about two offensive boards a game. We have to really focus on blocking out in the post,” ISU forward Justin Gant said.
ISU’s focus continues to be its season-long search for offensive and defensive balance.
“We still think we’re building, improving and getting better. We’re going to need to play well at both ends to beat them tomorrow,” Lansing said.
ISU is hoping Dawon Cummings is going to start feeling himself again. Cummings suffered nerve damage in his left knee after a practice injury last Tuesday.
“It was scary. We thought we lost him the day before the Bradley game [last Wednesday], but to his credit, he’s toughed it out and helped us,” Lansing said.
Cummings said rest and relaxation has been the plan since then.
“I took a blow to the knee, but I took a couple of days off and got some rest and I feel better,” Cummings said.
• Samuels done for season — Lansing confirmed Tuesday what many had suspected … injured center Mike Samuels will not play this season.
Samuels suffered a broken foot during ISU’s Bahamas trip in 2012. He missed the 2012-13 season. It was later discovered the foot didn’t heal and Samuels had another surgery that has cost him the current season.
Samuels returned to practice a month ago, but has been limited, and he isn’t ready to return to game duty. Moreover, given how late it is in the season, it’s not prudent for Samuels or ISU to burn a year of his eligibility at this late stage of the campaign.
“You’re basically talking about a kid that hasn’t played, or done anything, for a year-and-a-half. He’s been practicing with us on a limited basis. He has to continue to get in better shape and work,” Lansing said.
“We had hopes that maybe he’d be able to help us this year, but this late in the season, you can’t throw him out there and strip a year from him. He’ll help in practice this year, and hopefully, be able to help in the future."
Evansville at ISU
Tipoff — 7:05 p.m. at Hulman Center.
Broadcasts — Radio: WIBQ-FM (98.5). Twitter: @TribStarTodd.
Series — ISU leads 85-75. The Sycamores won 81-62 at Evansville on Jan. 4.
Last time out — ISU beat Southern Illinois 60-57 on Saturday. Evansville lost 84-68 to Wichita State on Sunday.
Indiana State Sycamores (20-6, 11-3) — G Jake Odum (6-4, Sr., 12.6, 4.7 apg), G Dawon Cummings (6-4, Sr., 10.2), G-F Manny Arop (6-6, Sr., 11.5); F Justin Gant (6-8, Jr., 10.3, 4.2 rpg) and C Jake Kitchell (6-10, Jr., 3 ppg) are possible starters. G Khristian Smith (6-6, So., 11.3), G Devonte Brown (6-3, So., 5 ppg), F Demetrius Moore (6-7, Jr., 4 ppg), G Lucas Eitel (6-2, Sr., 2.2), G Brandon Burnett (6-6, So., 2 ppg) and F T.J. Bell (6-8, Fr., 0.8) and are key reserves.
Coach — Greg Lansing (76-50 at ISU, 4th year).
Evansville Purple Aces (11-16, 4-10) — G D.J. Balentine (6-2, So., 23.1, 3.9 apg), G Adam Wing (6-4, So., 7.7), G Duane Gibson (6-3, Fr., 6.6), G-F Blake Simmons (6-5, Fr., 9.9) and C Egidijus Mockevicius (6-10, So., 10 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.7 bpg) are the possible starters. F Jaylon Brown (6-0, Fr., 4.5) and C Jaylon Moore (6-7, Jr., 4.1) are key reserves.
Coach — Marty Simmons (99-119, 7th year at Evansville; 198-191, 13th year overall).
Injuries and absences — For ISU, C Mike Samuels (foot) is out. G Dawon Cummings (knee), G Jake Odum (knee) are probable.
Next games — ISU plays at Missouri State and Evansville plays host to Southern Illinois on Saturday.
— Todd Golden