Greg McDermott might be in a very slim minority in handicapping the final six weeks of the chase for the Missouri Valley basketball title.
“Anyone that thinks this is a two-horse race is foolish,” McDermott said. “Northern Iowa, Evansville, Bradley and Indiana State are all very capable of making a run in these last 11 games.”
Through the first seven games, McDermott's Creighton team and Wichita State have demonstrated to be head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. The Shockers and the Bluejays are tied for the league lead with 6-1 records, and the smart money has them battling it out all the way until they play the final game of the regular season in Omaha on March 2.
But if McDermott is right, which one of the other Valley teams is capable of shedding its inconsistencies and making a challenge for the top spot? My money now would be on Indiana State, although the Sycamores started the season cast as anything but a challenger.
They lost four starters off a team that had underachieved last season. Mike Samuels, the big man that coach Greg Lansing was hoping would fill a hole in the middle, broke his foot on a summer trip to the Bahamas and was lost for the season. The team's best player, Jake Odum, was coming off an injury-plagued sophomore season.
But if Lansing has proven anything in his first 2½ seasons in Terre Haute, it's that he can coach a little. The Harlan, Iowa, native has mixed and matched role players from previous seasons with newcomers and Odum to help get Indiana State off to a 5-2 start in league play.
Overall, the Sycamores stand 12-6 and own the Valley's marquee victory, having defeated a Miami (Fla.) team with an RPI ranking of fourth. Indiana State also posted a win over No. 32 Mississippi at the same tournament in Hawaii, while narrowly losing to No. 33 San Diego State.
Wichita State's best out-of-conference victory came at No. 29 Virginia Commonwealth, while Creighton's top non-league win was a neutral court triumph over No. 51 Wisconsin.
Indiana State can't match Creighton or Wichita State in the talent and skill departments, but its hard-nosed play is earning raves from opposing Valley coaches.
“They guard very well and they do a good job of sharing the ball,” said Illinois State coach Dan Muller, whose team opened conference play with a loss to the Sycamores. “And they have a kid in Odum that can make big plays.
“It's not a fluke where they're at and it's not a fluke they won those games in Hawaii and did well in the nonconference.”
Indiana State's 72-62 win over Evansville on Saturday allowed the Sycamores to take over sole possession of third place in the league.
“Indiana State is a tough-minded, physical team,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “They don't give you easy baskets and make you earn things.”
Lansing appreciates the kind words but knows the Sycamores have plenty of work to do to cut the gap that exists between them and the league's elite. Much of that work, Lansing said, has to continue to come on the defensive end.
“When we've been good on the defensive end, we've been hard to score against,” he said. “Now, we've been pretty bad at that end at times, too. Defense needs to be our constant. We need to make teams make tough shots.”
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Indiana State ranks seventh in the league in scoring defense (65.8 points per game), but is third behind Wichita State and Creighton in field-goal percentage defense (.406) and fourth in 3-point percentage defense (.317).
The Sycamores are moving closer to becoming the team Lansing envisioned they might be in the days leading up to the season.
“Losing Mike Samuels certainly hurt us because he was going to give us a guy that could guard a (Gregory) Echenique or some of the other bigs in the conference,” Lansing said. “That forced us to play a little different way, but this group is starting to develop an identity.
“We have a lot of guys capable of doing different things. We've asked them to work hard and compete and try to be a tough team.”
Lansing does beg to differ with McDermott when it comes to one thing.
“This league is so competitive, but I think Creighton and Wichita are going to hang right there at the top,” he said. “The rest of us are going to be fighting against each other to see who will be third through 10th.”
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