The devil will always be in the details of any individual season, but there's very little we don't know about Indiana State's men's basketball team.
We know the Sycamores have shooters — perhaps more returning shooting talent than any team in the Missouri Valley Conference. Tyreke Key, Cooper Neese — and if he regain the form that has defined the majority of his ISU career? — Jordan Barnes too.
We know the Sycamores can throw an enviable amount of guard combinations on the floor. It's a certainty that ISU will play with at least three guards on the floor at the same time. Key, Neese, Barnes, Christian Williams, Cam Bacote, De'Avion Washington and Tyeshon Martin all have experience. Cobie Barnes is a true freshman, but is the versatile link between the guards and the forwards, he possesses the skills that will help him play multiple positions.
We know that the Sycamores feel they bolstered their front line with the addition of bulky Chris Agbo and first-year players Tre Williams and Jake LaRavia. They are added to Bronson Kessinger to give ISU more options down low.
Those are the good things we know, but there's also bad things we know too.
We know this team played very poor defense in 2019. In MVC games, ISU was the worst in field goal percentage defense (47.3 percent) and second-worst in scoring defense at 71.5 points.
We know this team wasn't consistent in any phase of the game in 2019 and in seasons prior. ISU maintained its penchant for showing up on some nights — ISU advanced to the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic — and disappearing on others. See the Loyola MVC road opener and ISU's nightmare trip to Bradley.
We also know this program has had five straight losing seasons. Three of those seasons had ISU just a game or two under .500, but they were under .500 nonetheless.
So from the outside looking in, we feel we know a lot about these Sycamores. For ISU to break out of its recent losing and inconsistent doldrums will require the Sycamores to teach us a few things we may not know they possess.
Can they defend? Can they conjure the toughness and concentration to maintain consistency? Can they play together? The answers to those three questions may very well determine ISU's direction and coach Greg Lansing's future with the program.
"We've had a losing season since I've been here so finishing towards the top of the league is what we're shooting for and capable of — and we have the pieces to do it," Key said. "We just have to be focused in prep, knowing what the other team is going to do and we can't make mistakes like we did last year. There were some games we lost last year on dumb mistakes. We have a smart team this year, so that ain't going to happen."
To a person, ISU players and coaches have lauded the chemistry and unity of purpose, but that's been heard in offseasons before. All of the above also realize they can't just talk about it, they have to prove it.
"I'm pleased by our leadership and work ethic across the board. The young guys and new guys show some promise. They have a long ways to go and they'll find out real quick how different it is in Division I basketball. We have a difficult schedule, but hopefully, it's going to harden us coming out of nonconference and into the Valley season," Lansing said.
The hope lies first with Key, who broke out in his sophomore season a year ago. Key led the MVC in scoring at 17.4 points, shot 44.8 percent from 3-point range, and was adept at both scoring and dishing.
Hope also lies in the hands of Barnes, who had a very difficult MVC portion of his junior season — he only made 21.2 percent of his 3-point shots in conference play, a decrease of 17 percentage points from his 2018 average — but who has proven before to be a weapon.
Hope is also abundant in what can happen with Neese and Williams playing a full season. Neese played much better in the second half of the MVC season a year ago as he found his outside shooting touch and made 46.9 percent from long-range in the final eight games. Williams said he feels much healthier than he did a year ago. His versatility — he can play point guard all the way up to power forward — is key for the Sycamores.
"The biggest progress I've seen is we're playing harder than what we've played in the past. I haven't seen that since I've been here, but it's nice to see from a senior standpoint. To get better? We have to get better with our communication defensively and offensively? We have to take care of the ball more," Williams said.
Hope also lies in the newcomers. LaRavia, Cobie Barnes, Tre Williams and Agbo are all likely to play straight out of the box. LaRavia has shaken off some early preseason practice injuries and has been active in recent practices as well as productive around the basket. Tre Williams can be disruptive defensively. Agbo gives ISU an athletic wide body it hasn't had since Brandon Murphy. Cobie Barnes has the aforementioned versatility and confidence in his game.
"I like that we're really athletic and the bigs are really good," said Key, who also put some onus on himself. "My goal is to be a better leader and communicator. I want to know how everyone plays and we have new guys that are going to be huge for us this year."
One unknown is how much, if anything, center Blake Brinkmeyer will contribute. Lansing said Thursday he was suspended indefinitely.
So what about the defense? ISU wasn't good in any phase of its defense a year ago. Straight-line drives off the perimeter were a problem. Under-help and over-help, both a condition of lack of communication, also plagued the Sycamores.
There's no magic bullet to fix the defensive problems. It's mainly just about commitment.
"The communication and rotation we have keeps everyone on a string. It comes down to have the intensity to actually guard somebody one-on-one, which is a difficult task, but you have to want to do it. We've practiced a lot of one-on-one defense and a lot of defense to get ready," Jordan Barnes said.
ISU also has to improve its assist-to-turnover ratio, which was also worst in the MVC last year. Lansing hopes the addition of Bacote, the versatility of Williams, and more experience for Washington and Martin leads to less of a load for Key and Barnes.
Fans all know what they think the Sycamores need to prove. They need to end their losing season streak, get back in the top half of the MVC, and create some excitement as Hulman Center enters the final phases of its renovation. Most also know that time is running out on Lansing's contract — one year remains after this one — so the urgency to win is significant in that vein too.
What do the players think they have to prove?
"We have a lot of guys who are motivated. We know how good we can be. I don't think we'll let games or days go by without our best effort," Christian Williams said. "We have to prove we belong. A lot of people are counting us out, we need to count ourselves in."
"We have a lot of prove the ultimate goal is the championship and we're going to play with a chip on our shoulder until we get what we want," Jordan Barnes said.
As for Lansing?
"Every team is a new team and every season is a new season. All I'm going to think about is getting this team prepared as we can going into every game, playing them one at a time, and trying to get better through the year. We always have high expectations. I'm excited about it and I hope our fans are excited about it," Lansing said.
ISU opens at Dayton at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
ISU men's basketball schedule
Saturday=at Dayton=7 p.m.
Nov. 13=at Louisville=8 p.m.
Nov. 17=Ball State at Indy*=4:30 p.m.
Nov. 21=Duquesne=6:30 p.m.
Nov. 22=Loyola Marymount=4 p.m.
Nov. 24=Air Force=4 p.m.
Nov. 30=Missouri-St. Louis=2 p.m.
Dec. 3=North Dakota State=5:30 p.m.
Dec. 7=at Wright State=2 p.m.
Dec. 18=Tennessee State=7 p.m.
Dec. 22=Chicago State=2 p.m.
Dec. 30=Southern Illinois=8 p.m.
Jan. 4=at Drake=6 p.m.
Jan. 7=at Northern Iowa=8 p.m.
Jan. 11=Illinois State=2 p.m.
Jan. 15=Evansville=7 p.m.
Jan. 18=at Valparaiso=8 p.m.
Jan. 22=at Loyola=8 p.m.
Jan. 25=Bradley=2 p.m.
Jan. 29=Drake=7 p.m.
Feb. 1=at Missouri State=4 p.m.
Feb. 5=Loyola=6 p.m.
Feb. 8=at Illinois State=8 p.m.
Feb. 12=at Bradley=8 p.m.
Feb. 16=Missouri State=4 p.m.
Feb. 20=Northern Iowa=7 p.m.
Feb. 23=at Evansville=2 p.m.
Feb. 26=at Southern Illinois=8 p.m.
March 5-8=MVC Tournament***=TBA
* At Bankers Life Fieldhouse
** At Bimini
*** At Enterprise Center, St. Louis