Little-by-little, game-by-game, Indiana State's men's basketball is doing something very important that will hold the Sycamores in good stead by seasons' end if they continue to progress at their current pace.
What was impressive in ISU's 68-39 destruction of Loyola on Wednesday at Hulman Center? Well, pretty much everything, but the trait that ISU has relied on throughout its four-game win streak was in abundant evidence against the Ramblers as they were escorted behind the woodshed.
That trait was defense.
ISU coach Greg Lansing and the Sycamores themselves have talked a lot about defense in the last two weeks. This is not usual. ISU talks about defense all the time.
This time, however, the Sycamores are backing up their talk with action. And that hasn't always been the case with this team.
It wasn't the case as recently as 19 days ago when ISU allowed Valparaiso to sashay down the lane at will in an 86-77 loss. And it wasn't the case 15 days ago when Loyola shot 67.4 percent from the field in a 75-55 ISU defeat.
So what changed? Well, ISU's commitment for one — the Sycamores had been chastened in some of their early MVC games, but unlike some of ISU's teams of recent ilk, they learned their lesson instead of being continued to learn the same one over and over.
As part of this, the Sycamores have gradually cut down on the spurts of instant offense their opponents had been using to keep them down.
This had been a sizable demerit against ISU. In the games in which ISU's opponents shot 50 percent or better in MVC play - Drake away, UNI away, Valparaiso away and Loyola away - there was at least one long spurt ISU's opponent used to either wipe out an ISU lead or increase their own.
Basketball is a game of runs, but these were more like stampedes. When your defensive performance can't be trusted, it's just hard to win consistently or beat quality teams.
But ISU has worked on its defensive concentration. Against a seven-man Bradley on Jan. 25, it didn't look so good early. The Braves shot 60 percent in the first half and the game had that here-we-go-again feel to it.
However, the Sycamores locked down in the second half of that - the Braves only shot 30 percent - and they were able to come back and win 61-53.
Sure, it was a depleted Bradley, and they likely tired, but you have to start somewhere. That second half is the seed of the much-better defensive performances to come.
Against Drake on Jan. 29, the Bulldogs shot 54.4 percent and led by one at halftime.
Though ISU didn't shoot well itself in the second half, it kept Drake in the 30s in shooting percentage for most of the second half and used a 13-0 run to take the lead. When Drake rallied late, they could withstand the surge and Christian Williams rewarded the Sycamores with a last-second game-winner.
Another brick in the defensive wall for the Sycamores as it sustained its defense just a tad longer against the mostly full-strength Bulldogs.
Then ISU demonstrated it could import its defense to the road. Missouri State shot 45.1 percent in the first half against the Sycamores in Springfield last Saturday, but the Bears struggled for much of the first half until a late spurt got their percentage up.
In the second half, the Bears got hot and wiped out ISU's double-digit lead, but the offensive breakout was short-lived. ISU clamped down again, held the Bears to four field goals in the final 10 minutes, and earned a rare win at Missouri State.
Again, the amount of time where ISU let its defensive guard down was shorter, maybe 10 minutes of game time. Apart from that? It was pretty good.
Then there was Wednesday's game. Both teams came out smoking, but after the six-minute mark of the first half, Loyola just broke down completely. The Ramblers only made eight field goals in the final 29 minutes of the game.
Never more so than Wednesday had ISU made its defensive commitment a bigger part of its winning identity.
Buy-in is key, but what are the Sycamores buying into?
Part of it is just simple commitment. Christian Williams, Tyreke Key and Jordan Barnes are guarding as hard as they ever have on the perimeter. They're not making it easy for the opposing guards.
ISU is also luring drivers in the waiting arms of Jake LaRavia, Tre Williams and Bronson Kessinger. I don't think the league has figured out how good they collectively are at rim protection. Several teams have tried to drive straight at them with a blocked or altered shot being the result.
Actually, ISU's rim protection has been a collective effort. ISU guards, who have always crashed the boards in the Lansing era, are descending into the paint on drives and post catches. Several Sycamores got hands on Loyola shots on Wednesday.
And they're doing it without giving up perimeter defense. ISU has been recovering to shooters far better in recent games than it did in early MVC contests.
ISU is also doing a very good job of anticipating the passes out of the post and back to the arc. This was more evident than usual on Wednesday as Loyola runs everything through center Cameron Krutwig.
Barnes, Key and Christian Williams jumped up to steal or tip several passes out to the arc. Lansing said after the game that ISU had 18 first-half deflections. All of the above lead to transition offense.
Then there's the X-factor of Christian Williams and Key in terms of their opportunism. Christian Williams is an octopus out there. He's constantly bugging ball-handlers with his long arms and excellent knack for timing a deflection. He does so without sacrificing good guarding principles, not a trick every one who forces steals can do.
Key tends to be more opportunistic, timing a blitz on a ball-handler or strafing someone with his help defense. He's also brave as far as drawing charges is concerned, a trait he shares with long-time expert Kessinger and LaRavia, who is learning fast.
ISU has been good offensively over its four-game win streak too, but the defensive improvement is the reason that the Sycamores' place in the MVC standings - ISU is currently tied with Loyola in third place - makes it more appropriate right now to talk about league title contention rather than whether the Sycamores can avoid Thursday night at Arch Madness.
That's not what was being discussed two weeks ago. The Sycamores put a stop to their inconsistency by getting stops. If they continue to do so, and continue to adopt defense as part of their identity? They will continue to breathe the rarefied air near the top of the league.
Note: In this space, we'll discuss some, but not all, players whob played.
• Jordan Barnes (7 points, 3 assists) — Jordan Barnes has had far better statistical games, but don't let the numbers fool you. Barnes was on-task on Wednesday as far as running the show was concerned.
He had command, he picked the right spots, he got ISU's deadly drive-and-kick offense cranking. He ran the point the way the point ought to be run.
Some have said over the years that Barnes focusing on point guard duties wasn't the way to go. Well, I think we've seen enough evidence to know that it was. Last year, he had more of a prominent scoring role, was eventually sussed, and struggled. This year, Barnes is back to a more balanced role and he's thriving.
And it's not as if his shot has gone away. Barnes is 6 of 11 from 3-point range in ISU's last three contests. He's playing the way a senior should.
• Jake LaRavia (15 points, 12 rebounds) — LaRavia is not playing the way most freshman do and that's a huge bonus for the Sycamores.
Wednesday's game was an object lesson in how LaRavia is a quick study. At Loyola, both he and Tre Williams struggled to contain Krutwig. That's not a Cardinal sin. Almost all posts struggle to contain the crafty big man.
But LaRavia learned what he needed to do defensively. The difference was dramatic. After Krutwig got off to a good start, he was shut down in the last 30 minutes. LaRavia and Williams bodied him and cut off his service from the perimeter. It was a strong performance.
Then, of course, you can add in LaRavia's usual hustle. He had five offensive rebounds and 12 overall. LaRavia is second in MVC-only overall rebounding at 8.4 boards per game and he's first in offensive rebounds at 4.2, a full rebound ahead of second-place Austin Phyfe of Northern Iowa.
When was the last time ISU had a league-leader in offensive rebounds? Carl Richard had 2.6 offensive boards in league play in 2011. Brandon Murphy was third in 2018 and second in 2016, the only other Sycamore to even be in the top five since then.
• Cam Bacote (10 points, 3 rebounds) — One thing ISU has been missing in its win streak has been point production from its bench. Sixth-man Cooper Neese had a nice game at Missouri State, but he plays starter minutes.
Bacote broke out of a slump in league play. His first 3-pointer was crucial in ISU's first-half-ending 19-2 run. It got Bacote into the flow and he played confident.
Bacote's 10 points almost doubled his MVC output to date. Entering the game, he had scored 11 points in league play.
— I tweeted this on Wednesday night, but ISU is in a really good position as far as its NET ranking and tiebreakers are concerned.
We'll see where the NCAA NET rankings are tomorrow, but as of Wednesday night? ISU is ahead of everyone in the MVC but UNI and Loyola. Coming into Wednesday, Loyola was 92 and ISU was 99.
ISU might not catch Loyola (it's hard to do that once conference play begins), but it will creep closer.
Why does this matter? Because the MVC tiebreaker in the event of a season split or multi-team tie (with no sweep involving any of the teams) is the NCAA NET. This means, at present, ISU will win any head-to-head or group tie involving SIU, Bradley, Drake and Missouri State.
And, of course, you can add Loyola to the list if the Sycamores happen to pass them in the NET too. For what it's worth? ISU has passed Loyola in Kenpom's rankings. Sycamores are 92nd. Ramblers are 96th.
Edit: ISU did pass Loyola. The Sycamores jumped all the way to 85 in the NET rankings released Thursday morning. Loyola is 99, so the Sycamores own that tiebreaker now too.
You can add Valpo if ISU beats them at regular seasons' end. ISU needs some more road wins to solidify its NET status, but it's in good shape right now.
— ISU is only one win away from clinching a .500 season and two victories away from clinching its first winning season since 2014. ISU has already matched its MVC win total from 2019 with seven conference games left.
Winning has a funny way of clearing out those who were wishing ill on the program for change sake. I can't stand "fans" like that. Root for your team first and foremost and let the chips fall where they may.
— Speaking of fans, the enthusiasm at Hulman Center was pretty good from the 4,063 who were there, but they could use some more friends.
ISU's student section looked packed, but the truth is that it was comprised in large part of ISU's football and track and field team. Hey, good for them for showing up. ISU needs every fan it can get and it's great when ISU's athletic teams support one another.
However, it would be nice if more of ISU's rank-and-file students would find their way to Hulman Center. This was a 6 p.m. tipoff. Those are rare, but it's also a great time to get to a game and get back to your room/apartment and study ... or whatever else it is you want to do to occupy your time.
— ISU is 6-0 in MVC play at Hulman Center. ISU was 5-4 last year, so it has exceeded that mark.
ISU has finished 7-2 at home in league play nine times since 1997, the last time in 2016, but has only exceeded that record once. ISU was perfect at home in league play in 2000 when it won the MVC regular season title.
ISU has Missouri State, an impending huge game against Northern Iowa, and Valparaiso still left on the home docket. If ISU can continue to protect its home floor and steal some road games? It could be very interesting to see where the Sycamores end up.
— The Sycamores very nearly pulled into a tie for second-place on Wednesday as they almost got help from the Evansville Purple Aces?
There's nothing more dangerous than a winless team and Southern Illinois nearly found that out to their peril on Wednesday. Leading 54-50 with 28 seconds left, Evansville's K.J. Riley made a pair of free throws, stole the ball, and converted a layup with 5 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
The Aces led for much of the extra period, but alas, it didn't last. Lance Jones scored five points in the final 39 seconds of overtime to help the Salukis win 64-60. It is SIU's sixth win in a row and the Salukis are an incredible 6-3 in league play, just a game behind leader Northern Iowa.
The Aces play Bradley, Loyola, Drake and Southern Illinois between now and ISU's visit to Ford Center on Feb. 23. Only one of those games is at home for Evansville (Loyola), but I don't want any part of Evansville being winless when ISU visits. Those kind of teams find pride to play for and it becomes its own engine.
Plus, perhaps someday, DeAndre Williams will return for Evansville too.
The Panthers shellacked Valparaiso 63-51 at the ARC. UNI led 34-19 at halftime. The Panthers are 20-3 overall and 9-2 in the MVC. The Crusaders fell to 5-6 in the MVC, two games behind the Sycamores. That's big because Valpo is one of the few teams who have a tiebreaker edge over ISU.
Drake defeated Bradley 73-60 at the Knapp Center. Liam Robbins scored 29 points for Drake. Drake's win helped the Sycamores as Bradley fell out of the tie it was in with ISU and into a fifth-place tie with the Bulldogs, one game behind ISU and Loyola.
Missouri State bounced back from its home loss to ISU as it dominated Illinois State 80-60 at JQH Arena.
It was the Redbirds' worst loss of the season and Illinois State is now 2-9 in league play and 7-16 overall. Most thought the inexperienced Redbirds would struggle in 2020, but not to this degree. That abundance of losing doesn't go over well in Redbird-land.
It didn't go well with Illinois State coach Dan Muller either.
"I told them at halftime, 'Guys, I'm not going to coach effort. I'm going to coach basketball. I'm not going to yell at you or go crazy this game. If you don't want to compete that's not my job in February. In November I get it. But I'm not coaching that,'" said Muller in the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph.
The Pantagraph also reported that Muller sat on the bench for 10 minutes of the second half.
"We started a different lineup (to start the second half) and said, 'That's on you guys. You want to get embarrassed like that, that's on you. That's your decision,'" said Muller. "Unfortunately, they did come out and didn't want to fight or compete. So I didn't do much coaching at the start of the second half because I was waiting to coach basketball."
That's a different approach, but I imagine that won't be Muller's line of attack when the Sycamores visit Redbird Arena on Saturday night. My guess is that he'll have the Redbirds ready and motivated.
The Sycamores need to be ready too.