Sycamores taking hard road to NCAA berth
Greg Lansing is used to these white-knuckle flights by now, but that doesn’t make the prayers any quieter. Tuesday’s late-night hop from Wichita to Terre Haute had more bobbing and weaving than a Manny Pacquiao fight.
“Yeah, we’ve been toughened up in a lot of ways,” Indiana State’s basketball coach says with a laugh, “These guys have had to go through several different scenarios, whether it be on the court or with us traveling.”
There are a lot of ways to get to 7-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference and on to the NCAA tournament bubble. The Sycamores have taken the scenic route, although that wasn’t necessarily by design. In fact, the biggest away wins of the season have been followed, strangely enough, by some kind of punishment from Mother Nature — a 68-55 upset of No. 15 Wichita State at visitor-unfriendly Koch Arena on Tuesday evening, for example, gave way to long delays and all kinds of bouncy bad in the air.
And yet, that was nothing compared with that Christmas tourney in Honolulu. After wins over Mississippi and Miami (Fla.), it took Indiana State’s entourage nearly a full day just to get back from Hawaii to campus.
The saga played out like a John Candy film: Fly from Honolulu to Phoenix; watch flights get canceled out of Phoenix; scramble to catch a plane to Philly; get stuck in Philly overnight; sleep for three hours; catch a plane to Chicago in the morning; then charter a bus to get you the last 220 miles from Chicago to Terre Haute.
“Twenty-two hours of sitting around and traveling,” Lansing says. “It was hell.”
Less than 30 hours later, the Sycs hosted Illinois State. Somehow, Indiana State gutted out a 77-75 victory.
“We were on absolute fumes,” Lansing says. “How we won that game, I’ll never know.”
There are better teams, sure. There are bigger teams and faster teams and sexier teams. But there might not be a more resilient bunch chasing a berth in the Big Dance right now than Lansing’s well-traveled Sycamores. Going into Wednesday night, Indiana State checked in at 37th in RPI and 43rd in strength of schedule. After winning at Wichita, the Sycamores now have as many wins over top 50 RPI schools as the Shockers — three apiece — and a Valley race that was supposed to involve only two horses might suddenly have to make room for three.
Indiana State is 14-7, granted, but it’s a 14-7 with substance. The Sycs were stomped by UCLA in their season opener, yet rebounded to take down the 14th-ranked Hurricanes and No. 16 Ole Miss during that fateful Honolulu trek. At midweek, Indiana State owned as many RPI top-50 scalps as Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois and more than Ohio State (two), Baylor (two), Connecticut (two), Colorado (two) and North Carolina (one).
TeamRankings.com on Wednesday projected Indiana State as a 23.8 percent shot to reach the Big Dance, with a 20.4 percent chance of snatching an at-large berth. StatSheet.com even moved the Sycs up to its “Last Four Out” pool, alongside Alabama, BYU and Virginia. They may not be knocking at the door, but at least they’re within shouting distance of the front porch.
“Hey, people are talking about you — our guys like that, and they should enjoy that,” says Lansing, who steered Indiana State to the NCAA tourney in 2011 during his inaugural season, becoming the first new Sycs coach to turn that trick since Bill Hodges in 1978-79. “But you’ve got to reel it back in. … The only thing we ever talk about it getting better every day, so when (the MVC tourney in) St. Louis comes around, you’re ready to go.”
Up close, the Sycs are your typical wacky Valley matchup, starting a pair of lengthy guards in 6-foot-4 Jake Odum and 6-3 Devonte Brown who can play outside-in and a set of bigs in RJ Mahurin (6-9) and Justin Gant (6-8) who can play inside-out. Then there’s Manny Arop, a 6-6 transfer from Gonzaga who’s become the do-everything glue that binds it all together, dropping 27 points on Ole Miss and averaging 13.9 points over the past eight contests.
Overall, though, it’s a grindy, blue-collar bunch, one that’s got more in common with Wichita’s grit than Creighton’s polish. Nine different Sycs average at least 13 minutes, although the flow isn’t always pretty: Indiana State shoots just 44.1 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from beyond the arc.
“We’re not going to win any beauty contests, that’s for sure,” Lansing says. “But the guys stick their noses in there and they compete.”
To wit: Odum, the lanky point guard with a penchant for crashing the lane, took on the Shockers while battling a sore throat and fatigue, yet still managed 10 points, four assists and a 6-for-6 night from the free-throw line. The Sycs pound the defensive boards hard and, thanks in no small part to Odum’s kamikaze forays into the paint, are regulars at the foul line (23.6 free-throw attempts per game, 16th in the country).
“I just want to be a hard-working team that plays unselfish,” the coach says. “And we know that we could lose every game on the rest of our schedule. That’s just the way this conference is. It’s way too good. … You can lose to anywhere. You can lose to anybody.”
According to StatSheet.com, the Sycamores are the second-youngest team in the Valley and the 62nd-youngest in Division I, having lost four key seniors from 2011-12. Which would go a long way toward explaining the more mercurial part of the resume — such as the, ahem, losses at Morehead State (RPI: 168) and at Southern Illinois (RPI: 197). To get where it wants to go, Indiana State can’t afford many more “bad” setbacks. And, right on cue, here comes a Saturday visit to Drake (RPI: 158), which ambushed Creighton a week ago.
“That’s what happens in this league,” Lansing says. “If you don’t play hard in this league, on any given night, you’re going to lose.”
Still, there’s a long ways yet to go, both in a literal and figurative sense. Indiana State has home dates left with Wichita and Creighton, on Feb. 19 and Feb. 6, respectively, putting its fate — as well as the fates of the league’s bellcows — squarely in its collective grasp. There’s also a Bracket Busters game at the end of next month, in which the Sycs are likely to host North Dakota State (RPI: 65), South Dakota State (69), Eastern Kentucky (74) or Detroit (78).
“We don’t want to be in the conversation now,” the coach says. “We want to be in the conversation at the end of the year.”
Lansing may not be able to control the weather, but his Sycamores still control their postseason destiny. Indiana State will happily soldier through any road, however winding, as long as it ends in Bracketville.