When sitting down to interview new Indiana State coach Kevin McKenna about the upcoming season, there’s no point in wasting time when it comes to the burning questions.

So here goes … what’s up with the sweater vest?

“I’m not trying to make any fashion statement, I’m just trying to be comfortable. I like the feel of it,” said McKenna, who is well known in Omaha for wearing sweater vests on game day at both Creighton and Nebraska-Omaha, and who donned one in ISU’s exhibition game against DePauw on Thursday. “The Nike guys [ISU’s athletic supplier] sent me a few … I’ve got enough sweater vests to wear a different one for every game. I might dress it up and wear a tie with it, but as long as there’s no rules on what I have to wear, I’m going to keep doing it.”

The sweater vest might come with the man, but the system McKenna brings to ISU basketball is of more importance. Gone is the dogmatic devotion to motion offense and man-to-man defense that former coach Royce Waltman preferred, replaced by a pressing defense and spread offense.

The sweater vest might come with the man, but the system McKenna brings to ISU basketball is of more importance. Gone is the dogmatic devotion to motion offense and man-to-man defense that former coach Royce Waltman preferred, replaced by a pressing defense and spread offense.

McKenna wants the Sycamores to be flexible based on the opponent and based on what their own strengths are at the time of a game. If that means limited use of the press or tweaking the principles of the spread offense, so be it. McKenna has already stated that use of the press might be limited throughout the season as the players acclimate to it.

“The bottom line in this whole thing as we create our team and our identity is I don’t want them to be basketball robots out there. I want them to be more free-flowing and instinctive players. I want them to have freedom to make plays,” McKenna said.

McKenna believes the press and spread are the best ways to go about that. It’s worked at Creighton since 1994 when McKenna was an assistant coach on Dana Altman’s first coaching staff with the Bluejays.

Given Creighton’s success in the Altman era, you’d think the press and spread were some sort of birthright there, but neither Altman nor McKenna had been known as devotees to the press and the spread before converging at Creighton.

“We kind of grew into it together. Dana came around to that system because at our level, we’re not going to get the huge, back-to-the-basket scoring machine, we’re going to get a skinnier, skilled, small type of post man,” McKenna said.

It took time for Creighton to enjoy success with its system, but when it came, it stuck. The Bluejays were 7-19, 14-15 and 15-15 before reaching the postseason in 1998. The Bluejays haven’t missed since.

McKenna left to take over Nebraska-Omaha in 2001, and by then, he was fully devoted. The Mavericks had immediate success playing it, going 24-9 in his first season after UNO had been 9-17 the year before. McKenna eventually tallied an 89-33 mark there.

“When I left [for UNO] I kept doing it and put some wrinkles in of my own, we created more counters for every defense we saw against it,” McKenna said. “I feel comfortable teaching it. I really feel comfortable in the way it flows, the balance it has. You need a certain kind of player to make it work, but most players can make it work. It’s a fun style, it’s an equal opportunity type of offense that gets everyone involved.”

The press McKenna hopes to implement is well known to the Valley — full-court pressure designed to speed up the opposing team’s offense and force mistakes. If Drake’s press, for example, tries to force mistakes in dead ball and inbounds plays, the Creighton press is more “traditional” in that it tries to force things on the floor.

The spread offense, however, is less easily defined. It has motion principles; players do have the freedom to create within the framework of the offense without guidance from a set play, but for the first time since the pre-Waltman era, ISU will have sets to go to when necessary.

“There’s some flow to it, we have a number of early offense break stuff that flows into our continuity or two-man game and our cutting action. Basically, there’s 40 set plays we run as end-of-the-shot clock or quick hitter-type plays,” McKenna said.

“What we pinpoint is who we want to get the ball too and where we want them to get the ball. Do we want a 3-point shot? Are we looking to post, are we looking to drive it? We pinpoint who we want to attack, who is weak defensively, who has fouls, you can go at an area that needs to be exploited.”

It remains to be seen whether the Sycamores will be more reliant on set plays or not, but the idea that they’re there is comforting.

“It’s going to help us a lot. Once we run a play, we know we’re going to get something out of it. Having some plays in our back pocket is going to help us down the line,” ISU point guard Gabe Moore said.

It remains to be seen how the current crop of Sycamores will take to that. Unlike McKenna’s transition to UNO, ISU is learning this system from scratch. The Mavericks had run a similar system prior to McKenna taking over and also had some Division I transfers to rely on, making immediate success more likely.

While ISU has a veteran core — nine players return with varying levels of experience — it is a core that has enjoyed very little Missouri Valley Conference success and is still relatively young. Moore is the only senior starter.

There are glass half-full, glass half-empty questions up and down the roster. Sophomore guards Cole Holmstrom and Marico Stinson had periods of brilliance last season, especially shooting the ball, but also had stretches of inconsistent play and both struggled more often than not defensively. Even Moore, asked to play a massive 37.5 minutes per game last season — had periods of inconsistency, probably a product of ISU’s general offensive struggles in the second half of last season.

ISU’s big men — Jay Tunnell and Adam Arnold will start — were also up and down.

Others are seemingly perfect fits for McKenna’s system. Harry Marshall, who proved to be a bulldog defender last season, should be perfect for the press and is more confident offensively. Todd McCoy, who struggled to adapt last season, has the skill sets to contribute more. Freshmen Aaron Carter, Isiah Martin and Lamar Lee have adapted in practices.

“Coming here compared to when we took over at Creighton, we’re a lot further along as far as guys who should be here playing Division I basketball,” McKenna said. “It’s not an instinctive thing for them yet. Our perimeter guys are picking things up quickly, but the inside spot is the cog in the wheel, and if that guy isn’t getting it done, we have trouble running stuff. We need them to anchor everything.”

What’s also palatable is the optimism any new coaching era tends to bring. No veteran player on the ISU roster has yet experienced a season where there wasn’t doubt about the future of the program as Waltman’s job status was being questioned by disgruntled fans when the current crop of seniors were freshmen.

“We can just concentrate on basketball and not worry about who the coach is going to be or whether he’s going to get fired. It’s all about getting better and moving up in the Valley,” Moore said.

“This year is a whole different thing. It’s a relief that we can play the game and practice to do what we can do to get better as players,” Arnold said.

With stability comes harmony, but also, more accountability from the players.

“They know I’m going to be around for a little while. They’re either going to get with it or not. If they don’t they’re going to have to find another place to go,” McKenna said.

McKenna believes the Sycamores can compete this season. ISU opens Friday against Oakland City at Hulman Center, but he said an early litmus test is ISU’s nonconference road schedule. With trips to Butler, Purdue, Miami of Ohio (a NCAA Tournament team last year and MAC West favorite), Tulane and North Texas, McKenna believes the toughness of a team is measured by how they do in road games.

In the end, however, McKenna isn’t comfortable burdening a new team with goals that are out of reach.

“We joked and panicked at times at Creighton about having to play those Thursday [MVC Tournament] games and [ISU] has been in a lot of them in recent years. Avoiding the Thursday game would be a good start,” McKenna said. “But I really don’t put numbers on, ‘Here’s a game we should win.’ I don’t do that. I’m a game-by-game can we compete against this team type of coach.

“Come March, hopefully, we’ll have a better package we can throw at people and be successful.”

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