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DOWN IN THE VALLEY: Five takeaways from the Myrtle Beach Invitational

Julian Larry dunk start

Courtesy ISU via Jim Killian

Sky Larry: ISU guard Julian Larry skies to the rim for a dunk during the Sycamores' 77-36 win over Old Dominion at the Myrtle Beach Invitational inside the HTC Center in Conway, S.C.

Six games in 12 days. I only did five of them, though all of the road games, and I'm ready for a breather. That breather won't happen for me until Thanksgiving as I have a couple of days of driving in front of me as I write this.

Indiana State went 1-2 at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. The Sycamores won the game that usually matters most in these tournaments, the first one, so they got to play quality competition throughout. That's the primary goal of these tournaments overall for a mid-major school.

For the most part, I thought ISU acquitted itself well, especially in the face of yet another roster crisis, this one COVID-19-related. The Sycamores weren't undermined by lack of effort or buy-in, but lack of depth and fatigue due to the short bench. 

I like the way this team seems unified to get better. It showed when ISU made a run at New Mexico State in the finale. It also showed when ISU kept its foot on the pedal for a historic 41-point win over Old Dominion in the opener.

Here's five takeaways from ISU's trip to Myrtle Beach:

1. When everything clicks? ISU takes away an opponent's will — ISU was locked in against Old Dominion in every phase. If you were going to put a Josh Schertz-coached game as a primer for what he wants his teams to do, this one was it.

ISU's style of play, when it's going at full song, will take an opponent's will away. When ISU's cutting action is working and when shots are falling at a reasonable rate, it confuses a defense to the point of surrender. At least that's how it looked as the Monarchs just gave up in a way few Division I teams ever do.

ISU will be under-sized against most teams and was against ODU, but fight matters, and the Sycamores had the requisite pugnacity to battle on the boards and make life difficult for ODU's shooters. ODU normally depends on post touches, but through force of will, ISU made the Monarchs a jump-shooting team ... not their forte.

It was an impressive display of ISU at its best. And the Sycamores did it without Bledson, who is sort of the Schertz Whisperer on the floor. 

2. On the other hand, Oklahoma showed ISU can be had — However, ISU can't succeed on system alone, and if you get an opponent to respect the kind of defensive concentration it takes to guard off the ball? The Sycamores can be had.

I was very impressed with the Sooners' off-ball defense. Yes, they're longer, but it wasn't length that cut off passing lanes and denied Sycamores. They just played good man defense off the ball. My vantage point allowed me, at times, to see what the guard at the top of the key could see as far as passing options were concerned. Many times? There simply wasn't anything there.

If you take away ISU's cutting action, then the Sycamores have to hit outside shots and they didn't do it against the Sooners.

ISU won't see too many teams with the big bodies Oklahoma has, but the Sooners gave ISU opponents some film that they can consult to show what can be done to stop ISU's offense.

3. Load management? Not here — ISU was short three players. One you can price out for the season - Tyreke Key.

Another - Quimari Peterson - only returned to practice last week and wasn't expected to play at Myrtle Beach. Guard Xavier Bledson was quarantined due to COVID-19 protocols. Later, it was found out that Peterson was too.

So ISU was very short on personnel, but even still, the rotation was very, very short. Against New Mexico State, it reached its extreme when ISU played only seven players.

Schertz explained the rationale in the postgame press availability.

"In that game, we felt like throwing in Zach Hobbs ... who does he guard? Cam Crawford is going to be a good player, but the physicality of this game was not going to be one where he would have thrived in," Schertz said.

"The only other guys I would have thought of would have been [Nick] Hittle or [Simon] Wilbar, but I actually thought Dearon [Tucker] played pretty well. He gave us some size, presence and got us some [pick-and-] rolls. He does better against true bigs," Schertz continued.

"There's not a lot of options and it's obviously less than ideal to play guys that much. I thought we ran out of gas down the stretch. Some of the mistakes we made - three lay-ups in the last five minutes - some were fatigue for sure," Schertz continued.

"We're only dressing 10 or 11 guys. There's not a ton on the bench. In these games, you're trying to find who can guard, who can play. This is high-level competition with Oklahoma or New Mexico State, it's hard to throw guys in there. The physicality level is so high and the guards are so good," Schertz said.

4. COVID isn't going anywhere — I'm not going to belabor it, but I continue to be disappointed with those on athletic teams who don't get vaccinated. As ISU's quarantine of two players and two coaches showed, not being vaccinated does effect the team. 

I think it's going to be a rough winter for COVID again. Cases are on the rise, and while there is nowhere near the concern there was a year ago with vaccinations available, it's still a factor.

Many conferences, probably thinking COVID would be more limited than it was a year ago, have far more draconian policies in-place this year for teams that have an outbreak and can't compete. The MVC is one conference where teams would have to forfeit if they can't field a team due to COVID cases.

School policies apply too. The players and coaches who sat out the weekend did so because of ISU policy, not the tournament policy.

Thank your lucky stars that the majority of the ISU team is vaccinated. If the majority had not been, ISU would have had to forfeit the games in the Invitational as well as shelter-in-place for the entirety of their quarantine.

Two individuals whom I will refrain from naming do have to stay in Myrtle Beach for a few days after the team leaves to honor ISU's COVID policies.

Point is? Quit the excuses and get vaccinated. If you are vaccinated? Thank you for making yourself and everyone else safer.

Also, if you're vaccinated, get your booster. I'm getting mine next week.

We're all on the same team when it comes to fighting the pandemic. I am all for minimal basketball interruptions this season too ... even if I'm skeptical I will get my wish.

5. Scant practice time has an effect — Against New Mexico State, Schertz felt he saw the effect of the minimal practice time ISU has had due to its punishing early-season schedule.

Schertz explained that he saw it in the way ISU ran its offense. Hopeful shots, some that fell, many that did not, as well as a bit of a breakdown in offensive discipline.

"We took 'reds' which is what I consider to be bad shots. Coop made three or four of them, Micah made one or two. We took terrible shots that happened to go in, but it's fools gold. You can't win a game like that," Schertz said.

"In the second half, we took more reds and we were 0-for-8 on those shots in the second half. We have to limit those. We have to be more disciplined offensively and we have to take better shots," Schertz added.

Then, Schertz got to what he feels is the heart of the matter.

"Watching us live, our execution has slipped, but we haven't practiced. We've had just one or two days in the last 12-13 days of actual practice with so many games and travel. We're looking forward to getting home and getting three or four good practices in before we play this weekend," he said.

ISU will take Monday off to travel, but will practice everyday this week (including Thanksgiving Day) to refresh before to goes to Ball State on Saturday.

• ISU Player(s) of the Game — Since this covers all three games? I'd say Cam Henry (17 points, 13 rebounds) against ODU. Henry again against Oklahoma (25 points, 8 rebounds). The NMSU game is a tough call between the primary scorer (Micah Thomas, 23 points) and all-around contributor (Julian Larry, 8 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists), but I'll roll with Thomas. He just never quit.

For the tournament overall? Henry gets the nod. Even against NMSU when his shot wasn't falling, he still contributed seven assists. He's taken to Division I basketball like a fish to water.

• Opposing Player(s) of the Game — No one is getting it from Old Dominion. I thought the worst D-I performance was San Jose State a few years ago in the Mountain West-MVC Challenge, but the Monarchs were cartoonishly bad.

Oklahoma's Tanner Groves was a problem for the Sycamores with 24 points and 8 rebounds. He hurt ISU from outside and inside.

For New Mexico State? There's several candidates. Donnie Tillman led the Aggies with 25 points. Will McNair had 12 points and 15 rebounds. Jabari Rice had a plus-26, eight better than any of his teammates, and five assists.

I'll go with Tillman, not because of his points, but he had four offensive rebounds on a night in which the Aggies controlled the glass with a 38-23 advantage.

I'd give Groves the edge as the most effective player I saw.

• Random — It's the first time I've gone on ISU's tournament trip since the last time the Sycamores were in South Carolina back in 2017 at the Charleston Classic.

ISU's last two tournaments were in Hawaii and Bimini, both too costly, and in the case of the Diamond Head Classic, at a bad time of year logistically.

They're fun, but the fun wears off after a while. As far as Myrtle Beach specifically? I did not stay there. My Dad retired to the Wilmington, N.C. area just over the North Carolina-South Carolina border, so I stayed there. I am thankful that a work trip gave me a chance to see family at a time I am typically unable to.

So for me? My down time was spent catching up with my Dad. It meant a 90-minute one-way drive to Conway, S.C., but that's OK.

However, most of the time? You have your share of boredom. Once you get over the newness of the place you're in, the novelty wears off.

As far as Myrtle Beach specifically? I'm glad I had my Dad's place to visit, because I would have been bored in a hurry. Problem is? It's a big golf destination and I don't play golf. It's also a big tourist trap, which is fine, but my kids (who are too old anyway) aren't here, so go-karting or miniature golfing was out.

I love the beach, despite a complexion where the word "fair" doesn't remotely capture it, but it's November. Myrtle Beach is too far north to go lay out. I don't think the temperature broke much past 70 for the whole trip. Not really beach weather.

Conway, S.C. itself is inland and it's kind of a victim of its own sprawl.

Coastal Carolina, where the tournament was played, is south of the town proper. There's a river and wetlands that separate the town from the university. The first day, I decided to go into Conway to eat. Problem? There's literally only two ways into the town from the south ... where everyone is coming from. Traffic was bad, big-city bad.

Anyway, when you're in one place, no matter how good it is, for so long, it gets old. I know it sounds entitled to whine when others don't have the "adventure" of travel in their work, but it's not a picnic. I am ready to get back to Indiana.

Next year? ISU goes to Fort Myers, Fla. That's fine. Fort Myers, along with Jacksonville, is probably the one major area of Florida I've not been to. 

Still, I hope Schertz mixes up the geography. A Vegas trip is always welcome. Texas, New Orleans, the Pacific Northwest? I'm game.

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Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.