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Sports Columns

December 1, 2013

From The Press Box: If ISU figures out defense, look out

Not winning Great Alaska Shootout’s not a great failure

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — The Great Alaska Shootout is not going to provide the Great RPI Bump that Indiana State’s participation in last year’s Diamond Head Classic provided.

ISU lost 63-62 to Tulsa in its first game, a defeat that left the Sycamores’ coaches and players alike dispirited. ISU recovered to beat a good Division II team in Alaska-Anchorage and knocked off a decent Pepperdine squad 73-70 on Saturday to finish fourth at the tournament.

There’s no victory over Mississippi or Miami to chew on this time. There’s nothing that’s going to get ISU a bunch of Twitter mentions or huzzahs from the national college basketball press.

Some take that as a failure for the Sycamores. Certainly the Sycamores were capable of winning the Great Alaska Shootout, but I’m not sure I’d go so far to call it failure.

It’s human nature to buy too much into a big win (Notre Dame) or jump off the bridge after a bad loss (Tulsa). The bad loss came at a bad time and prevented ISU from showing itself on a national stage or playing a quality team like Harvard, who did win the tournament. That’s all unfortunate, but hardly fatal to the Sycamores’ season.

It’s also human nature to buy into preseason expectations and the Sycamores are being judged based on being a Missouri Valley Conference and NCAA Tournament contender. That’s life in the big city for the Sycamores, and it leads to two different schools of thought as to where they are at this stage of the season.

The glass-half-full view on ISU? The Sycamores are 5-2, decisively defeated Notre Dame on its home court and is two points away from being unbeaten. The offense is humming and ISU is getting production from several different sources.

The glass-half-empty view? The Sycamores should be 7-0, they blew a big lead at Belmont and let an inferior Tulsa team score at will when it mattered. ISU struggled to put Division II Truman State and Alaska-Anchorage away, and could easily have lost to Pepperdine. ISU could be 1-6.

As always, the truth is somewhere in between, but one thing that is beyond debate is what’s holding the Sycamores back … their leaky defense.

ISU has prided itself on its defense since Greg Lansing took over in 2010. The 2011 team that made the NCAA Tournament did so because of its defense — ask Missouri State about its 10-minute MVC Tournament championship game drought. In the two years since, ISU has prided itself on its ability to make stops.

That makes it all the more puzzling as to why ISU has been so sieve-like this season. This is especially true given that Lansing and his coaching staff have been pounding into the Sycamores their need to improve defensively.

“Maddening is a really good word for it. These guys will tell you I lose my mind with a lot of different stuff,” Lansing said. “We’re close, but we keep taking turns having little breakdowns.”

Opponents are shooting 47.8 percent against the Sycamores and averaging 76.3 points per game. Part of it is that ISU has played some up-tempo teams and is more up-tempo itself, thus more possessions. That explains the scoring total, but not the shooting percentages.

Is part of it the new rules? Maybe, but it’s not the only reason. Lansing and his staff essentially taught the Sycamores to defend via the method being legislated out this season. It isn’t helping that an adjustment has had to be made.

Partly because of the new rules, but mostly because of ISU’s inability to stay in front of drivers and close out on shooters, ISU has used a 2-3 zone at various junctures of games. That’s good to see — the new rules call for diversity in defense — but ISU, a dyed-in-the-wool man-to-man team, isn’t used to running zone yet, so it’s not going to run like a well-oiled machine at this stage of the season.

I watched closely during the Pepperdine game on Saturday to try to figure out who or what might be the guilty culprit. I’m no defensive coach, but even I could see that there wasn’t any one guilty party or scheme ISU used that was being exploited.

Depending on the possession, it was a different player who was late to a shooter off a switch, left too much room for a shooter, was too slow to roll off a screen, or didn’t communicate to a teammate. Veteran Sycamores were just as guilty as the younger players. No one’s exempt from scrutiny.

What’s mind-scrambling is that the Sycamores do prove once in a while that they’re capable of reverting back to previous seasons’ form. They did it on Pepperdine’s last possession on Saturday, when Khristian Smith and Manny Arop hounded the Waves into a poor final shot.

ISU has also proven it can be opportunistic. ISU is averaging 7.2 steals per game, and opponents are averaging 13 turnovers per game. Jumping passing lanes is the forte of guys like Arop, Jake Odum, Dawon Cummings and Devonte Brown.

The problem is the discipline needed to play good half-court defense. And the communication needed to do it right.

“It’s mainly communication. If there’s a screen coming, someone’s going away and we’re not rotating. Just that one word of saying ‘help’ or ‘ball’ and letting our teammate know that saves us a half-foot or a half-step. I think it’s close, but it’s still so far at the same time,” Odum said.

As disappointed as the Sycamores are with their defense, they’re not a lost cause. What ISU isn’t doing defensively is fixable and the fix can mostly come from the players self-motivating themselves to get better.

The Sycamores would likely be richly rewarded if they did because there’s very little to quibble about with ISU’s offensive performance. ISU is averaging 83.2 points and shooting 45.5 percent. It can score in multiple ways. The Sycamores are tough to defend.

In a perfect world, it should be easy to motivate the players to turn up the wick on their defense. Given how good ISU has been offensively, the players have to know that defense is the one thing holding them back.

“When it comes down to it, it’s us,” ISU forward Justin Gant said. “The coaches can say all they want, but we’re the ones on the court playing. It’s has to come from us. It starts with the starting five and work its way down the bench. It has to be a collective effort by the team. If ISU players buy into the idea that improving their defense is this close from making them great, they’ll be great.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or todd.golden@trib

star.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.


 

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