Indiana State erected a Larry Bird statue outside the Hulman Center in November. With the king of Indiana jump-shooters watching over them, the Sycamores are a dramatically improved shooting team.
Coincidence? It is more fun to give Bird the credit. The reality is that Indiana State is more experienced and playing more unselfishly. It leads the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring (76.7 points) and is tied for first in shooting percentage (48.7) and second in three-point accuracy (40 percent).
“They’ve got good shooters and they’re spacing the floor,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “They’ve got six guys that are shooting it as well as our best two. We certainly don’t want to make it a H.O.R.S.E. game.”
The Sycamores (14-3, 5-0 MVC) play at No. 5 Wichita State (18-0, 5-0) on Saturday in the biggest conference game of the season. WSU is trying to extend its school-record win streak, move up in the polls and reinforce the notion the Valley race is a one-team affair. Indiana State can earn a coveted NCAA resume-builder and make the race much more interesting than predicted.
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Saturday’s game is the MVC’s latest matchup of unbeatens since Jan. 19, 2008, when Drake and Illinois State, both 6-0, played.
It is the kind of game where WSU can use every defender, and sophomore forward Evan Wessel said he expects to play. He sat out Tuesday’s win over Bradley with a sprained left ankle. On Friday, Wessel practiced, sitting out scrimmage situations, and stayed late to work on his jump shot.
“I should be able to play,” he said. “I’m resting it (Friday) and I’ll be ready.”
To beat WSU in Koch Arena for a second straight season, the Sycamores will need to continue their offensive shine. The Sycamores are No. 62 nationally (averaging 1.1 points per possession) in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rankings; WSU (1.16) is No. 20.
“We have a lot of people who can score and we have a lot of options,” Indiana State center Justin Gant said. “As long as we keep moving the ball, attack the rim, and stay unselfish, we can win.”
The Sycamores shot 42.9 percent, 32.1 from three-point range, last season on their way to an 18-15 record and the NIT. Five of the top six scorers are back and four (all except senior guard Jake Odum) improved their shooting percentages.
“It’s just repetition,” Sycamores coach Greg Lansing said. “Guys put in a lot of time. Last year, we were a better shooting team than what our stats showed, but obviously it was our Achilles heel and cost us down the stretch.”
Many of the improvements are dramatic.
Forward Manny Arop, demonstrating improved shot selection, is 26 of 63 (44.4 percent) from three-point range, up from 31 of 110 (28.2) last season. Forward Khristian Smith made 65 of 172 (37.8 percent) shots last season. He is shooting 55 percent (71 of 129) this season. Guard Dawon Cummings improved from a 29-percent three-point shooter to 38 percent.
All three of those players are in their second season at Indiana State. With experience comes an understanding of how the offense works and how to get good shots.
“Spacing has a lot do with it, and being unselfish and sharing the ball,” Lansing said. “They play together and they know where everybody is going to be on the floor.”
Like Wichita State, the Sycamores can run plays that end with several options as a scorer. Four starters average in double figures and Smith averages 10.6 points off the bench. With Odum, tied for the MVC lead with an average of 5.2 assists, penetrating and finding open teammates, the Sycamores can spread defenses, forcing them to guard from sideline to sideline, and produce good shots inside and outside the arc.
“You’ve got to defend the whole floor,” Marshall said. “Their bigs can shoot it. Their guards can drive it. Their guards can shoot it.”
All five double-figure scorers shoot 31 percent or better from three-point range.
“Defenses can’t load up on certain guys,” Arop said. “When one of us is cold, the next guy is hot.”