Todd Golden of the Terre Haute (IN) Tribune-Star covers ISU basketball. He was gracious enough to drop some knowledge on the Sycamores in a Q&A this week.
Judging from the Sycamores’ resume, while they weren’t the favorite of the Missouri Valley Tournament, they did beat regular season champ Missouri State in conference play, and again in the Valley Tournament final to clinch the NCAA bid. At the beginning of the season, did it look at all like ISU could get into the NCAA Tournament?
No. At few points during the regular season did Indiana State look as if it was NCAA Tournament timber. The worm turned when ISU went 7-1 to start the MVC season. That built belief. After a mid-season skid, ISU won five MVC games in a row to end the season, including a key road win at Northern Iowa to finish 12-6. Even then, while the possibility of winning the MVC Tournament couldn’t be ruled out, ISU certainly wasn’t the favorite. Beating Wichita State in the semifinals, a team ISU had trouble with in recent years, was an important step. At that point, but not until that point, did I consider it a realistic possibility.
Assistant Greg Lansing took over the team after Greg McKenna followed former head coach Dana Altman to Oregon. How has he been able to keep the team together and get it performing at the current level?
It was pretty easy. Lansing recruited many of the players and predated McKenna on ISU’s staff. He had the trust of the players and was a confidant of sorts during the McKenna era. It was an easy and welcome transition for the players.
ISU played close with Notre Dame and Purdue in non-conference play before things slipped away. How was the team able to stick with them and what led to the power conference teams pulling away?
They hung in there because their concentration was at a good level. Against ND, they shot well and avoided turnovers, something ISU wasn’t doing with any kind of consistency at that time. They hung with Purdue because of defense (Purdue shot 33.3 percent). They lost because Notre Dame and Purdue both had too many weapons in the end. It’s hard to compare those games to now. ISU’s offensive focus was Dwayne Lathan and Jake Kelly-based. Since the beginning of the MVC season, focus changed to point guard Jake Odum. ISU is a much different team since those two games.
From the time you’ve spent around the team, what is the Sycamores’ mindset right now? Is it a “happy to be here” kind of mentality that we’re used to hearing from lower-seeded teams, or do they feel like they can make some real noise and have confidence after the tournament win?
It’s hard to tell. They project confidence and say the right things. They won’t be wowed by the fact they’re playing Syracuse, they’ve played “name” teams many times, though its been since 2007 that ISU has beaten a so-called good name team. Playing in a NBA arena won’t faze them, they’ve played in Indianapolis several times and some of the Valley venues (Wichita State and Creighton jump to mind) are equal or superior to that of the power conference venues. The enormity of being in the NCAA Tournament? The Sycamores have not done that before. No one expected them to be there, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.
With the Valley holding its conference tournament back in the beginning of the month, almost two whole weeks will have passed between games for the Sycamores. What can you tell me about how the team has been preparing with that kind of lag time?
The idea has been to maintain the edge the team had at the end of the season, when it won eight of nine games. Practices went back to preseason basics, but were also a bit longer at times. There’s not much that can be done outside of scrimmaging and doing basic drills.
Is Indiana State a team that could be harshly impacted from not playing an actual game in two weeks, or will the rest benefit them in the long run?
I think it will benefit them. Like most teams at this point in the season, they had bumps and bruises they got time to let heal. Indiana State had a similar layoff (11 days) in late December and came out of it fine with the 7-1 MVC start. MVC teams always face this and few in recent years have been on the wrong end of a rout. I don’t think the lag time will hurt at all.
Jake Odum’s been impressive as a freshman. What makes him a weapon and is he the kind of player around whom Lansing could build a mini-dynasty?
Dynasty might be a bit strong, but Odum is special, and is certainly the building block with which ISU will grow in the next three years. He has outstanding court vision, basketball IQ, and has enough improvisational flair to go with it to make him very hard to defend. He plays within himself, but not to the point where he ever puts himself in a shell. He’s become more of a scorer in the last half of the season, which has made him doubly dangerous. Certainly, the future is ahead of this program. In many respects, this NCAA Tournament appearance came early. With a good recruiting class coming in, ISU should be among the MVC’s contenders for the next few seasons.
Focusing on the matchup Friday, what does Indiana State have to do to have a chance at pulling the upset? How do you see the game shaping up?
First of all, ISU has to find a way to stop Syracuse’s four-headed scoring monster. Help defense is going to be difficult for ISU to pull off considering the Orange can score in so many different ways. ISU was the best defensive team in the MVC by field goal defense, but this is the biggest test they’ll face this season. It won’t be unlike Notre Dame, and while ISU hung with them for a while, in the end, the Irish had too many scorers to contend with. Equally important, ISU has to avoid turnovers — something it hasn’t always done a good job of this season as lazy passes and poor decisions by some players have hurt in some of ISU’s losses. Syracuse’s zone presents problems, but ISU has a heady point guard and the mix and shooters and drivers to handle it … if they shoot well, of course.
The media has several motifs it likes to throw around when it comes to the Orange, such as the notion that any game played in New York or New Jersey is a home game, despite both being at least three hours from campus. It looks like there could be a similar infatuation with Indiana State’s most famous alum. What is your over/under for Larry Bird references during Friday’s broadcast?
It would make a great drinking game, wouldn’t it? I’d conservatively estimate 20, though one could easily add a zero to the end of that estimate. ISU fans eat it up, though. They love it and they should, not many mid-major schools can claim a NCAA runner-up in their background. With Gus Johnson calling the game for truTV, who knows what kind of Bird references he has dialed up?