TERRE HAUTE — Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on Todd Golden’s blog on Tuesday. His blog can be viewed at tribstar.com/toddgolden.
After Indiana State’s 91-71 loss Tuesday at Arkansas in the National Invitation Tournament, and in the days since, I can’t help but think of Bum Phillips and the 1980 Houston Oilers as I ponder Indiana State's 2013-14 men's basketball season.
Stay with me.
The Oilers had lost to the all-conquering Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1978 and 1979 AFC Championship games. Despite that, it seemed the Earl Campbell-led squad was the team of destiny to knock the Steel Curtain off their perch.
So much so that Phillips, the wonderfully colorful Oilers coach, said the Oilers would "kick the door down", knock off their black-and-gold nemesis, and win the AFC Central in 1980.
The Steelers did indeed falter in 1980, but it wasn't the Oilers that kicked the door down. The Cleveland Browns won the AFC Central in 1980, and though the Oilers earned a Wild Card bid, it was an underwhelming consolation prize for Love Ya Blue.
I bring this up because I feel that ISU never kicked down its door in the 2013-14 season.
As I watched preseason practices, I thought it was the best put-together ISU team in my 10 years on the beat. It was NCAA Tournament timber.
But the wait to see the team kick into high gear turned out to be in vain.
Once over, the season felt underwhelming. It was good, definitely not bad, but not as great as it could have been.
On one hand, it seems silly to knock it. ISU won 23 games, the highest victory total since 1979. ISU finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference, their best finish since 2000.
Six years ago, there’d have been a parade down Wabash Street for a 23-win season. We all know where the program came from. We also know that ISU is still monetarily-challenged compared to other MVC schools. The Sycamores command respect now and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
But respect has its own trappings. Yes, the bar has undeniably been raised, but once raised, fans and boosters want to clear the next one. As ISU’s coaches and players have raised the standard, they’re judged on a higher one as well.
That’s why the season felt as it did. A lot of opportunities to kick down the door went by the wayside. Nonconference losses to Tulsa in Alaska (which took them out of the chance to get a quality win against either Harvard or Green Bay in the Great Alaska Shootout) and Saint Louis (no shame in losing to the Billikens, but it proved to be the only quality nonconference team ISU played) set the tone.
The only statement to be made in the MVC was to beat Wichita State. While the Sycamores came very close once and sort of close in St. Louis, they didn’t kick that door down either.
The NIT provided one more chance for the Sycamores to validate the excellence they expected out of themselves and that others placed on them, but Arkansas emphatically snuffed that out.
The Sycamores were what they were: a team that couldn't overcome its flaws.
That seems harsh, but think of it this way, what is ISU’s signature game of the season?
The win at Notre Dame in November seemed big at the time, but the Irish had a poor year and it turned into a pumpkin. Then what? The second-half comeback at Northern Iowa in January was impressive, and probably the best win in conference, but UNI was a .500 team.
It says a lot that the signature game was likely a loss. ISU's 65-58 defeat on Feb. 5 at Hulman Center against Wichita State was valiant, and it was as hard as ISU played all year, but it wasn't enough. Self-inflicted wounds, in this case, missed free throws, scuttled ISU's hopes of a game-changing win.
And that's just it. Things like inconsistent defense, missed free throws, missed layups and missed 3-pointers — ISU’s fall from early-season 3-point grace is the mystery of the season — held the Sycamores back all season.
Those flaws didn't always show in a 23-win season, but it showed when ISU took a step up in class.
WIth Jake Odum and much of ISU's backcourt gone, Greg Lansing has a task in front of him.
He has to keep ISU's momentum going and to satisfy fans who like how far the program has progressed, but who won’t have much patience for staying in place for too long or a step backwards.
Someone returning next year is going to need to take a leap forward in improvement along the lines of what Wichita State's Fred Van Vleet or Evansville's D.J. Balentine did from 2013 to 2014. If it’s more than one player, so much the better.
Improvement has to continue throughout the season, much as Tekele Cotton improved his outside shot and made it a weapon by season's end for the Shockers. Or what Egidijus Mockevicius did at Evansville going from a liability to a force in the paint.. There haven't been too many ISU players that have followed a similar trajectory in recent seasons.
And, as ever, the Sycamores’ players need to demand accountability out of themselves. This team has had a lot of nice guys. Too nice to challenge their teammates to get better it sometimes seems.
It won't be easy next year as the Sycamores will skew young, especially in the backcourt. It’s unlikely ISU will be picked second in the MVC and it won’t be considered a possible NCAA Tournament team.
Expectations need to be reasonable, but not ratcheted down too far. The door to be kicked down next year might be a top-half MVC finish., but whatever the expectation is, it needs to be high enough to keep fans excited and that door needs to be booted this time.
Because the longer the door stays there without being kicked down, the more likely it is that the wolves of discontent will gather behind it. No one wants to go there.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.