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January 31, 2013

TODD GOLDEN: Indiana State has far more occasions to rise to

WICHITA, Kan. — Rejoice, Indiana State basketball fans. The Sycamores’ 68-55 victory at No. 15 Wichita State on Tuesday is worthy of celebration. In my nine seasons covering the Sycamores, it is undoubtedly the biggest regular-season Missouri Valley Conference victory ISU has pulled off.

Winning at Koch Arena? Because of the distance to Wichita, not many ISU fans have experienced the sonic blast that is Koch. It is, without question, one of the most intimidating places to play, not only in the Valley, but in the nation.

Nearly every ISU game I’ve covered there has been the same — the Sycamores are competitive, but have wilted under the pressure of the noise and the adrenaline lift it gives the Shockers. For the Sycamores to have withstood repeated doses of that Tuesday is a major sign of progress. It was electric.

So bask in the glow of plaudits from national commentators. Dream your dreams of the NCAA Tournament. Let thoughts of a possible MVC championship — once thought to be attainable by ISU only to the insane — dance through your head. Why not? The Sycamores have played themselves into those lofty positions.

Immerse yourself in those pleasant thoughts, because if there’s one thing the Sycamores have proven this season, it’s that they rise to the occasion. It’s been a steady build. An early-December overtime loss to New Mexico, wins over Ole Miss and Miami and a near-miss against San Diego State during Christmas in Hawaii, and a road win at Wichita State at the death of January are a testament to that.

But as you’re enticed by what might be, ground yourselves in the reality of what is … ISU still has eight games to play in the MVC. The Sycamores have made great strides to alter the national perception of the program, but the grunt work still needs to be done to make that perception reality when it counts in March.

That grunt work has too often tripped the 14-7 Sycamores up this season. Wins against Ole Miss, Miami and Wichita State are glorious. Losses at Morehead State and Southern Illinois are dubious.

It’s not that ISU got too satisfied, didn’t prepare, or didn’t take those teams seriously. But it’s human nature to go into a game at MVC-winless Southern Illinois and not expect to have to expend the same energy as it does at Wichita State.

But teams that contend for championships fight that instinct. And that’s the circle that needs to be squared for ISU to realize its potential.

The Sycamores have reached the point where they need to take an alpha-dog mentality into their remaining games. Alpha dogs dictate to teams; they aren’t dictated to. And ISU hasn’t proven it’s turned that corner just yet.

The easy part of being an alpha dog is to expect to win. Any team can do that. But what really defines an alpha dog is consistency of preparation and effort.

In a backhanded way, you saw the alpha-dog mentality reflected in the disappointed faces of the Shockers’ players Tuesday. The loss shook them, but what really seemed to rattle them is that they get out-alpha dogged by the Sycamores in their own building.

The Shockers have a swagger, but it’s a swagger rooted in the idea that they not only have the talent to beat anyone, but they can mentally beat anyone. That the opponent is going to have to play exceedingly well to beat them. That they aren’t going to beat themselves with silly mistakes.

Most of all, being an alpha dog means it’s taken as a point of pride to not take a night off.

Creighton has all of these attributes too.

Can the Sycamores get there? That’s the last remaining question mark this team has. Rising to the occasion is easy when you’re going into the cauldron at Koch Arena. But can ISU bring the same sense of purpose Saturday into the quiet storm at Drake’s Knapp Center?

For as good as ISU has been, nothing’s written in stone, and there’s still a thicket of trip-wires to negotiate. Road games remain at Drake, Missouri State, Bradley and Evansville — all danger spots and all potential losses if ISU doesn’t have its mind right. And those are just the road games.

Another trip-wire is ISU’s home BracketBusters game Feb. 23. The opponent will be announced Monday, as the Sycamores have earned the right to play a quality team, probably on ESPN.

To make February the glorious month it can be, the Sycamores have to re-calibrate what it means to rise to the occasion.

(An aside … fans need to rise to the occasion too. Creighton visits next Wednesday. How about a Hulman Center sellout? Pretty please? With sugar on top? I’m not sure what more the Sycamores can do to earn it.)

Rising to the occasion, MVC title contender version, starts with approaching Saturday’s game at Drake — the Bulldogs beat Creighton in Des Moines last week — with the same focus and intensity as it did against the No. 15 Shockers.

And then, rinse and repeat for the next game. Then do it again. And again. The NCAA Tournament is in the Sycamores’ grasp, so every game is cause for rising to the occasion.

If the Sycamores can do it, all of your dreams will come true.

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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