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February 24, 2014

TODD GOLDEN: Relax, guys: Play loose, have fun

Springfield, Mo. — What seems like an end can really be a beginning for Indiana State’s men’s basketball team.

Saturday’s 77-66 loss at Missouri State put an end to talk of gaining an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. It was going to take a Herculean effort — namely winning out and advancing to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament game — to have a sniff of a chance. It was a long shot all along.

That’s all over now. It’s unfortunate, but it might be the best thing that could happen to the Sycamores before Arch Madness commences in 10 days.

The Sycamores have been playing tight. The most obvious sign is in the team’s shooting slump — ISU is 25.3 percent from 3-point range since Jan. 25 — but it’s more than that. When this team has played well, it has played loose and free, and both have been in short supply for some time now.

Even though ISU has won its share of games since then and still hasn’t lost consecutive games at all this season, the Sycamores haven’t really been relaxed since the trip to Wichita State on Jan. 18. Certainly not since the home loss on Feb. 5 … the dreaded game that got away.

Evidence comes in the increasing difficulty ISU has had in putting teams away. There have been flashes of the loose and free Sycamores — ISU’s second-half at Northern Iowa and Bradley — but that commodity has been harder and harder to come by.

Did the smidgen of a shot at a NCAA Tournament at-large bid weigh on the Sycamores’ psyches? I asked Greg Lansing and several players that after Saturday’s loss. To a man, they vehemently denied it.

I’m not sure I completely buy their denials — hints have been dropped all month by the Sycamores as to what was at stake for the team this month — but no matter. It’s all immaterial now. What does matter is how the Sycamores handle the last week of the season and the MVC Tournament.

First order of business? Relax. Ease your minds. Forget about external nonsense, embrace the moment and make the final act of the season fun. That goes for fans as well as players and coaches.

When you take a step back from the NCAA Tournament bracketology circus — the constant will they or won’t they? — it’s been a pretty darn good season.

Despite the difficulty ISU has had in winning games, for the most part, it has won them. ISU’s 21-7 record is one of its best regular season performances in recent memory. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the close shaves and shooting struggles the Sycamores have endured.

A road trip at Illinois State on Wednesday is tough, especially because the Redbirds play a 2-3 zone as their base defense. The good news? ISU has had plenty of road swagger. It has nine road wins, a total few teams can match. ISU had that swagger at UNI and Bradley, and it can find it again. Swagger is fun. Have fun.

Next? Senior Day on Saturday against Northern Iowa. ISU will say goodbye to Jake Odum, Lucas Eitel, Manny Arop and Dawon Cummings.

The fans need to get in the spirit of fun, and of appreciation, and make sure Odum gets a proper send-off. He’s one of the best players in ISU history. He deserves a large crowd and a raucous atmosphere in his final home game. He (and Eitel) will leave ISU having had winning seasons in each year they played. There are not many Sycamores walking the earth that can say the same.

Fans get caught up and nervous about this at-large business too. Can’t blame them, I guess. We’ve created a culture in college basketball that if you don’t make the tournament your team is a failure, no matter how misplaced that is in reality.

Let it go. Don’t overthink it. NCAA Tournament or not, this team is good and it still deserves support.

Yes, an at-large bid is history, but ISU is in a good position. ISU owns the No. 2 seed at Arch Madness, its best seed since 2000. The table is set for ISU to make a run in St. Louis. It’s beaten every team in the conference except Wichita State. If it relaxes and has fun, it can even take down the mighty Shockers, too.

Odum had the right idea in the wake of Saturday’s loss. He didn’t want to criticize his team, he wants to stay positive. Some might see that as evasion of the Sycamores’ reality, but it’s the right approach and it’s the right time for it, too.

The pressure is off the Sycamores. There’s no reason this team can’t be loose and free and enjoy the ride. That’s when it is at its best.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at 812-231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

 

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