Sycamores roll over Ramblers

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza The shots were falling: Indiana State's Christian Williams drives to the basket and scores over Loyola's Marquise Kennedy in the first half of the Sycamores' 68-39 win on Wednesday at Hulman Center.

Indiana State’s men’s basketball team was ready to kick back.

Not to rest on any laurels, mind you, but just to rest. After ISU’s two-game series with Southern Illinois was canceled on Friday afternoon, the prevailing notion was that the Sycamores would be idle this weekend.

“After that [the SIU series was canceled], I wondered what was best mentally for our guys. I thought giving them Saturday and Sunday off. I’m sure they were relaxing and disappointed in not playing [SIU],” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.

However, the COVID-19 athletic world is full of surprises, and ISU got a big one late Friday night.

The Missouri Valley Conference announced that ISU would play on this weekend. It replaced ISU’s original opponent with a whopper, potential MVC winner Loyola, on short notice.

The Ramblers will visit Hulman Center for games at 6:30 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday. The series between the two schools was moved up from its original February slot.

What set the last-minute change in motion was positive COVID-19 cases at Drake, Loyola’s original opponent this weekend. The unbeaten Bulldogs will not play for the next two weeks.

That left Loyola without an opponent. And with ISU also without one, and with both schools’ intended home and road games aligned, the league moved the series up in the effort to ensure that as many league games as possible are played.

Needless to say, this significantly changed the dynamic for both the Sycamores and Ramblers. Loyola has to get to Terre Haute and make accommodations on short notice, not easy when road trips are usually planned down to the last detail.

However, the challenge for ISU is likely even more significant. Trying to dig out of an 0-4 MVC start, having played Drake and a Missouri State team that has only lost once in league play, now the Sycamores get one of the best teams in the league with minimal prep time.

Loyola (7-2, 2-0) starts four seniors and one junior. Center Cameron Krutwig and guard Lucas Williamson are the last contributors still playing from Loyola’s 2018 Final Four team. Aher Uguak and Tate Hall came later, but both have hurt the Sycamores in previous meetings.

Add to them Braden Norris, Tom Welch, Marquise Kennedy, Keith Clemons and Cooper Kaifes? All of whom are producing or who have extensive MVC experience.

“We’re still starting a freshman and two sophomores. We have new guys who have never played Loyola. They do what they do at both ends of the floor. They’re very well-coached and they’re not going to make mistakes and beat themselves. It’s a tall order,” Lansing said.

The logistics of a hastily-arranged game is not normal. Neither team had done much scouting of the other. And it’s not like a tournament scenario, where you know of the possibility of playing a certain opponent.

“In a tournament, you have your other assistant coach preparing for some of the other teams you might be playing. Loyola and us? They were getting ready for undefeated Drake and we were getting ready for Southern, which is where all of our focus had been. It’s difficult, but both teams are dealing with the same task,” Lansing said.

ISU’s players left Friday’s practice with the expectation they wouldn’t be playing this weekend. While it was possible, given COVID-19 and the MVC’s desire to play as many games as possible, that the Sycamores would get a new opponent, few expected an announcement to be made at 10:02 p.m. Eastern time.

“I told them at dinner we might be playing Sunday or Monday, though I wasn’t sure at the time yet,” said Lansing, who found out ISU would be playing shortly before it was publicly announced. “They handled that well. How can you not be excited about not playing a game?” Lansing said.

The make-up of the teams, with Loyola having more veteran players, could play a role in how the two-game series shakes out.

“We’re still starting a freshman and two sophomores. We have new guys who have never played Loyola. They do what they do at both ends of the floor. They’re very well-coached and they’re not going to make mistakes and beat themselves. It’s a tall order,” Lansing said.

Loyola’s last trip to Terre Haute was not a happy one. The Ramblers were beaten 68-39, their worst defeat of the 2019-20 season. Then again …

“Talking to Porter [Moser, Loyola coach], all he talks about is what we did to them here last year and my response is they did the same damn thing to us up there. [ISU lost 75-55 at Gentile Arena.] I think both teams have stuff to look back to and remember,” Lansing said.

Both games will be nationally broadcast. Sunday’s game is on ESPN2. Monday’s is on CBS Sports Network.

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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.

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