Who saw this coming?
Indiana State entered conference play on a seven-game losing streak against NCAA Division I opponents, one capped by home losses to Eastern Illinois and UMKC. Missouri State went 1-3 before starting the MVC schedule, including a home loss to Eastern Michigan.
For Indiana State (6-8), the slump represented a sharper dropoff than expected after the loss of All-MVC guard Jake Odum, Manny Arop and Dawon Cummings. Missouri State (8-6) returned four starters and voters picked it third in the MVC’s preseason poll.
Disappointment reigned, until MVC play started.
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Both are 2-0 entering Wednesday’s matchup between the two surprises at Indiana State’s Hulman Center. The schedule-maker helped Missouri State with games against Southern Illinois and Drake, two of the MVC’s weakest teams. Indiana State earned its wins against teams with solid non-conference resumes.
The Sycamores shocked short-handed Illinois State 63-61 on the road and knocked off Evansville 79-75 in overtime at home. They entered MVC play shooting 41 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range, held under 64 points in six of their eight losses.
“Our field-goal percentages were just brutal,” coach Greg Lansing said. “At the start of the year, we felt like our offense was pretty good, we just couldn’t make a shot.”
Indiana State’s offense perked up against conference foes at a time when defenses often thrive. It scored 70 points in regulation against Evansville, one of only two 70-point performances in the first 10 conference games. The Sycamores shot 48.2 percent against Evansville, 46.7 percent from three-point range. They committed 24 turnovers against Illinois State, surviving by making 13 of 21 shots in the second half and 9 of 21 threes for the game.
“I think it was guys trying too hard,” Lansing said. “I think we’re being a little more patient. I think guys are getting more comfortable with each other and who to look for and when to make their plays at the right time. We’ve been taking less threes and making more of them. The quality of our shots are improving.”
Senior center Jake Kitchell produced in the lane against Evansville and the Sycamores thrived off some easy shots. He scored 21 points, making 8 of 13 shots, and grabbed 11 rebounds to more than double his averages. Kitchell played five minutes in the loss to UMKC and Lansing said that performance weighed on him.
“He, like all of us, wasn’t real happy,” Lansing said. “He came back really energized. He’s a huge spark for us if we can get stuff offensively from him.”
The story is different at Missouri State.
“It’s really been about playing better defense,” coach Paul Lusk said. “We were pitiful, just absolutely pitiful, the first part of the season defensively. We’ve made some improvements, but we have to consistently do it.”
The Bears held SIU to 12-of-36 shooting in a 53-50 win to open MVC play on the road. Drake made 12 of 42 shots in a 62-37 loss. The Bears are 3-0 since Lusk went to a bigger starting lineup, moving guard Austin Ruder to the bench, that includes 6-foot-11 center Tyler McCullough, 6-6 forward Camyn Boone and 6-5 forward Loomis Gerring. McCullough, who started one game previously, blocked six shots in those three games. The Bears held Oral Roberts, SIU and Drake under 34 percent shooting after allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent or better in five of the previous six games.
▪ Good starts mean something, even in a conference that plays 18 games. Since 1993-94, only Northern Iowa in 2008-09 won or shared the MVC title without winning its MVC opener. Eighteen of the past 20 champions started 2-0 or better. That UNI team rallied from a 1-1 start. The 2011-12 Wichita State team won the title after a win at Bradley and a home loss to Creighton.
▪ Northern Iowa started the season with high expectations and made good on them by going 11-1 in non-conference play and entering the national rankings. Coach Ben Jacobson pointed to a 79-77 overtime win at Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 18 as showing the Panthers they could match the hype. “We had to make a lot of plays in that game, and make a lot of plays late in the game,” he said. “That one really made a difference for this team.” UNI snapped a 34-game home win streak for Stephen F. Austin, which defeated VCU in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
▪ Missouri State forward Gavin Thurman, from Wichita, missed three games with a knee injury. In his first four games back, he averaged 11.8 points and scored 19 at Southeast Missouri State. Thurman’s playing time dropped and he totaled seven points in the previous three games.
▪ On the women’s side, Indiana State’s 0-2 start is startling. The Sycamores entered MVC play 10-1 with wins at Indiana and No. 25 Saint John’s. The Sycamores lost 63-52 at preseason favorite Wichita State on Friday and 74-66 at Missouri State on Sunday. They allowed an MVC-worst 46.2-percent shooting in those two games.
Loyola — The Ramblers are 11-3 after going 10-22 last season, 0-14 on the road. Loyola is 3-2 on the road with wins at Texas-San Antonio, Kent State and Illinois-Chicago. Sophomore guard Milton Doyle is getting more help and it shows.
Wichita State — There is nowhere to go but down after last season, and it’s freaking people out. You know who you are, fan who e-mails after every game to complain about WSU’s big men. That some fans are nervous about a team that is 12-2 and ranked No. 15 nationally says volumes about where expectations are after the 2013 Final Four and 35-1 record in 2014.
Get to know an MVC neighbor
Q: Which MVC school finished as runnerup in the NCAA Tournament and National Invitation Tournament the same season?
A: In 1950, Bradley lost to City College of New York 71-68 in the NCAA title game and 69-61 in the NIT title game, both played in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Teams were allowed to participate in both tournaments through 1952. The schools are the only ones to finish as champion and runnerup of both tournaments in the same season.
One to watch
Loyola (11-3, 1-1) at Evansville (11-3, 1-1), 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN3.com) — Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius, who averages 13.8 points and 10.6 rebounds, may dominate against the smaller Ramblers. This is a matchup of top-100 RPI teams (Loyola No. 61, Evansville No. 85) and one will drop to 1-2 in MVC play.