It was tiny, not fat enough for a dime to slip through, but it was there. One sliver of a chink in that Wichita State armor. One that he could hear from over on the bench. One that stuck.
You ask Indiana State coach Greg Lansing if this season’s 23-0 Shockers are better than last season’s Final Four Shockers, and he says yes. When you ask why, he says this:
"They were arguing with each other last year."
This year, no arguing.
No losses, either.
"(Ex-Shockers point guard) Malcolm Armstead was tremendous in the tournament and all that, but he was never the leader that these three guards are, and as smart as these guys are on the perimeter," says Lansing, whose Sycamores — 17-5 and two games back of the 10-and-oh-in-the-Missouri-Valley Shockers — host Wichita on Wednesday night on FOX Sports Kansas City. "Armstead and Cleanthony Early, they were arguing (against us) last year.
"Now they just play. They just play. Very unselfish group."
The Shox are just the ninth team in modern NCAA basketball history to open a season 20-0 after playing in the Final Four the previous year; Wichita and Syracuse are the first to join that club since UNLV in 1991. Coach Gregg Marshall’s piranhas are chasing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Lansing’s Sycs (unofficial RPI rank as of Monday: 57) are chasing one of the last seats on the Bracketville Express.
Wichita’s stock is rising, but it’s the kind of tide that torpedoes MVC boats rather than lifts them. Lansing has a good team, a veteran team with a savvy point guard in senior Jake Odum, a team with a resume that includes wins at (then-No. 21) Notre Dame and at home to Belmont. The Trees turned up at Koch Arena on Jan. 18 and got smoked like the back of Tommy Chong’s Chevy van, 68-48.
"I think it was some quick offense," the Sycs’ coach tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "In the first half, we averaged about 11 seconds per possession; in the second half, we averaged under 10 seconds per possession.
"Against a really good defensive team that’s well prepared, we’re going to have to work the ball (around) a little bit better. We didn’t take very good shots … in the second half, we let poor offense turn into poor defense. I thought we gave in defensively."
Lansing’s crew won at The Roundhouse last winter, sowing the seeds of mild discontent along the way. This winter, the Shox snatched the garden hoe from the Trees’ grip and started wacking ’em across the noggin with it.
"I think the difference is (that) Tekele Cotton, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are just really good at both ends," Lansing says. "They’re tough, they defend, they’re hard to guard, they’re smart, they all do what the game dictates and their leadership is off the charts."
The Shox and Trees share a common non-league opponent, too: No. 13 Saint Louis (20-2), the Atlantic 10’s gold standard. No. 3 Wichita won at Chaifetz Arena, 70-65, on Dec. 1 — the Billikens’ only home loss to date. The Sycs turned up at the same venue 17 days later and were handed a bruising 83-66 setback.
"They manhandled us," Lansing says of Saint Louis. "These new defensive rules, (the Billikens) don’t pay any attention to it. They physically beat us down.
FOX Sports Kansas City coverage of the Shockers-Sycamores game begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"And Wichita wasn’t quite as physical, but they showed us how good teams are supposed to play. I think anybody that knows anything about college basketball knows how impressive a win in St. Louis is against that team."
That one was a keeper. A Sycs win Wednesday would be, too, especially with no Creighton and no BracketBusters left to offer a little February bump, something to impress the suits over in Indianapolis. If they’re going to fight their way back onto the fence — of the 65 mock brackets charted on Feb. 1 by BracketMatrix.com, only one listed Indiana State among the projected field of 68 — that journey starts this week.
"Our resume, I think, we’re a team that would pass the eye test, if people would just see us," Lansing says. "But there are so many factors that go into it. Even though I think this is a league that deserves more than one berth, it’s really our one chance at a resume-builder."
But he also knows that if they get outrebounded by 14 and shoot 31.4 percent from the floor and 25 percent from beyond the arc — as they did at Koch Arena — those chances figure to plummet from slim to none.
"Their defense is not going to be affected by missing some shots," Lansing says. "I tell you what, they just play the way they play at both ends of the floor. … They’re going to attack your weaknesses. They work the ball, they share it, and they can make the 3 and they all can drive."
And they can be beat, Lansing adds. But they sure as heck won’t do it to themselves.
"Sure," the coach notes. "They go to Northern Iowa on Saturday. That’s why I think our win (there) was so big (Saturday). VCU couldn’t do it (in Cedar Falls). … It’s going to take us or UNI to play well, regardless. This league is better than what people think."
The Trees are, too. The trouble is, they may get only one more chance to really prove it to the rest of the free world.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.