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March 10, 2013

TODD GOLDEN: Sycamores will have to grow, improve mental toughness

ST. LOUIS — Indiana State coach Greg Lansing was blunt after the Sycamores’ 64-43 loss to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The beatdown that the Bluejays administered to the Sycamores called for nothing less.

“I still love the guys, I love them all, I love our team. They’re good people. But we got exposed. During the last week, when Manny was suspended, we had some deficiencies that really have been exposed in times that we’ve lost,” Lansing said.

Though the Sycamores had some enticing moments during the season — they finished 2-1 at the Diamond Head Classic and contended for the MVC championship well into February — the end of the season proved the Sycamores weren’t quite ready yet for prime time.

ISU’s lack of response and its critical mistakes — especially on the defensive end — in the face of a motivated Creighton team was evidence of that.

But not too much should be read into Saturday’s forgettable display. To be honest, the 1979 Sycamores would have had problems containing Creighton in the first half. The Bluejays — a tough team to beat on their off days — played at about as high a level as a team could in the opening 20 minutes.

So forget it. ISU was on the wrong side of very few beatdowns this season, so it’s an outlier. What’s more germane to the Sycamores is how they move forward. How do they get better? What do they need to do to be ready for prime time?

Because, ready or not, expectations for next season are going to come. The Sycamores must learn not just how to handle them, but to embrace them. To be more comfortable with being a contender than they were in the last month of the season.

It’s not the end of ISU’s season. It will play on in the NIT or CBI. But it is the end of ISU’s MVC season and thoughts turn to where ISU will rate in the MVC pecking order in 2014.

Pretty high, actually.

The Sycamores are almost certainly going to be picked in the top two of the league. With everyone back, the only team in the top half of the MVC that brings back the same level of talent is Wichita State.

The other three teams in the top half either lose significant contributors, or in Creighton’s case, will likely be gone from the league altogether.

Missouri State and Bradley have promise, but the Bears and Braves will be climbing out of the league’s lower half. Every other MVC team has significant question marks or will be inexperienced.

ISU will be expected to contend. But are the Sycamores ready to have the focus needed to live up to it?

Lansing knows merely having players back doesn’t guarantee a thing.

“Having those seniors back, that’s a great thing when you’ve got a bunch of good guys like this. But if you want to contend for a championship? We’re not ready for that yet,” Lansing said. “We can talk about having everybody back and being joyous with that, but we’re not ready to win a championship in the regular season or in the tournament.

“We’re going to be picked in the upper half for sure in the conference next year, but that doesn’t do anything for you. We had a sniff at it when were were tied for the lead at 9-5. We didn’t handle it very well. It’s a big difference between knowing what you’re doing and getting some things done.”

ISU was hard to get a finger on as the season progressed. At times, it got itself caught in a Catch-22 where it needed to succeed to breed confidence or it got out of whack. Certainly, that was true Saturday.

At other times, ISU would start slow, but conjure an inner strength to get itself back into a game. Then that inner strength would seemingly disappear in the next contest.

Truth be told? That’s how a team with seven first-year players generally operates.

But with the expectations that will be in place next season, ISU is going to have to square the circle. Mental toughness — on a game-to-game basis, not just a sampling of games — is going to be paramount.

“We definitely need to get a little tougher. We’ve got to be able to handle criticism better from the coaching staff, be a little more coachable and follow the game plans,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said.

“When we followed the game plan this year, we beat a lot of teams. Then we kind of strayed off and did our own things and didn’t follow what the coaches had for us and we got whooped.”

ISU made strides this season. A fifth-place finish and a postseason bid, while disappointing in the face of early February MVC and NCAA at-large contention, is still a net-plus.

But the path to MVC contention is only going to get tougher. Most MVC observers will expect the Sycamores to negotiate that path.

The Sycamores’ mission in the next 12 months is to prove they can grow and be ready for it.

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

 

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