Greg Lansing was a basketball coach searching for answers as Indiana State prepared for a pre-Christmas trip to Hawaii.
The Sycamores were scuffling along at 5-3. There wasn't an aspect of the game in which they had distinguished themselves, either from a good or a bad standpoint. Blah might have been one way to describe their play.
“We were working hard, but that's the minimum if you're going to give yourself any chance,” Lansing said. “Every team and every staff is going to work hard. But we were having trouble sustaining any success on the court.
“We knew we had to find a way to play better for longer periods if we wanted to get better.”
The fact that Indiana State will bring a 9-4 record into Saturday's game at No. 16 Creighton indicates that Lansing's team has made some strides in that area. The Sycamores' 4-1 record in their past five games includes a pair of thrilling overtime wins in Hawaii and Missouri Valley victories over teams picked second and third in the preseason poll.
The loss was by seven points to No. 19 San Diego State.
“We're still searching,” Lansing said Thursday from Terre Haute. “But at least we've found ways to have some success.”
Indiana State's early struggles weren't totally surprising to Lansing, who had just one starter returning from a team that underachieved last season but still managed to win 18 games.
The returning starter is a good one — point guard Jake Odum, a preseason All-Valley pick who is one of the toughest competitors in the league. Lansing's faith in Odum, who leads the team in scoring with a 14.8 average, is unshakeable.
“There isn't anybody I'd trade him for,” Lansing said.
Building a rotation around Odum required a bit of patience. Lansing mixed four players — R.J. Mahurin, Justin Gant, Lucas Eitel and Jake Kitchell — that saw varying degrees of action last season with transfers Manny Arop and Dawon Cummings, redshirt freshman Devonte Brown and true freshman Khristian Smith.
Arop, who played two seasons at Gonzaga before transferring to Indiana State, is averaging 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Gant, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, is the top rebounder at 5.9 per game.
Lansing's nine-man rotation has started to mesh over the past two weeks.
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“One of problems early was our inexperience,” Lansing said. “Guys were trying to figure out their roles. They had to learn how to play together. That takes time.”
Indiana State opened the season by playing the first game at UCLA's renovated Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins hammered the Sycamores by 27 points, but Indiana State bounced back to win its next four games.
Back-to-back losses to No. 20 New Mexico and Morehead State were followed by a win over IUPUI, leaving the Sycamores 5-3 as they prepared for the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. Indiana State opened with an 87-85 overtime win over Mississippi, which is picked for an upper-division finish in the Southeastern Conference.
Against San Diego State, Indiana State twice closed to within four points in the final minute but couldn't pull off the upset. The Sycamores bounced back with another overtime victory, knocking off a Miami team that had been receiving votes in the national rankings.
“We beat a couple of upper echelon teams from the SEC and the ACC, and we were right there with San Diego State,” Lansing said. “The good thing about the Hawaii tournament was it gave our guys a chance to play together.
“That's what we needed. It's one thing to play pick-up together and practice together, but it's another to play in tough environments and compete possession-by-possession. Our guys did a good job of doing that over there.”
Lansing figured playing three games in four days would help prepare his team for the start of league play. What he didn't plan on was spending almost two days getting back home as bad weather threw travel plans into havoc.
“We had flights delayed, then canceled,” he said. “We ended up having to fly to Philadelphia, back to Chicago and then busing the rest of the way home. I don't know how we beat Illinois State.
“Our guys were playing on fumes, but we managed to pull that game out. That's kind of the way it's been with us recently. We've been on survival mode.”
Indiana State protected its home court by posting a 77-75 win over Illinois State, picked second in the Valley's preseason poll. The Sycamores followed up that win Wednesday with a 65-61 win at Northern Iowa, picked to finish third.
Up next is Sunday's game at preseason favorite Creighton, which is 13-1 and 2-0 in the Valley after Wednesday's 79-72 win at Illinois State.
“Our first three games are against the teams picked 1-2-3, with two of them being on the road,” Lansing said. “We knew it was going to be a big challenge and the last thing we could do is to lump those games together. Do that, and next thing you know you're 0-3.
“I was really proud of what we were able to do against Illinois State. With our travel problems, we had all the excuses. We had not practiced. We were tired, but the guys showed some maturity and played well enough to get that win.”
Sunday, the Sycamores probably will need their best performance of the season to stick with a Creighton team that has won 12 of its 13 games by double-digit margins. Lansing has professional and personal reasons for wanting to see his team play well at the CenturyLink Center.
He grew up in Harlan, Iowa, and played collegiately at South Dakota. He coached high school basketball in Des Moines and was an assistant at the University of Iowa. He'll have plenty of family and friends at Saturday's game, just as he had in his first two visits to the CenturyLink Center.
Those games ended in 14- and 26-point losses to Creighton.
“We have not played well there,” Lansing said. “I really hope we can play better to show a lot of people I know will be at the game that we are a good team and that we compete hard. Hopefully, we can make this one a little tighter than those last two.”
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