Wichita State Shockers

Paul Suellentrop’s MVC report (Jan. 14)

Indiana State and the power of superstition

Indiana State coach Greg Lansing forgot his razor on the trip to Illinois State on Dec. 31. From such simple things are routines born.

Lansing didn’t shave. Now he sports a two-week beard, somewhat reluctantly.

“We won, and four games later, it’s still here,” he said. “I hate it, but I’d like to keep it for awhile.”

Indiana State (8-8, 4-0 MVC) plays Illinois State (10-6, 2-2) in the biggest mid-week game. The Sycamores are trying to remain in first place. Illinois State falls three games behind the conference leader (or leaders) with a loss.

Indiana State bumbled through its non-conference schedule with a 4-8 record, one of those wins over NCAA Division II Truman (Mo.) State. It took almost two months for the Sycamores to fully adjust to the loss of four-year starter Jake Odum, in addition to two other starters from last season. Odum played point guard and replacing his skills and confidence proved as tough as expected.

“You get out of underneath the umbrella of a guy like Odum and, all of sudden, ‘Hey, I’m the one that’s got to make plays at the end of games and ‘I’m the one who’s got to guard the best players on the other teams,’” Lansing said. “It took some getting used to.”

MVC play signaled a different attitude, helped by game-winning shots in the final seconds to win at Illinois State and Southern Illinois. In between, the Sycamores defeated Evansville in overtime and cruised past Missouri State.

Senior big men Justin Gant and Jake Kitchell revived their seasons in MVC play. Gant is shooting 59.4 percent from the field in conference games after shooting 40 percent in 12 non-conference games. Kitchell lost his starting job after nine games and played five minutes in a non-conference loss to UMKC on Dec. 28. In conference games, he is averaging 11.0 points and 7.0 rebounds, almost double his non-conference output.

“They’ve really picked it up,” Lansing said. “They’re weren’t rebounding. They’re weren’t scoring. They’re weren’t defending. They’ve really kind of come with a sense of urgency once conference started.”

Fast breaks

▪  Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius offers a rare combination of size, effort and skill. He averages 10.8 rebounds and is 57 of 71 (80.3 percent) from the foul line. The last players to average 10 or more rebounds with that level of accuracy from the line were Texas’ Kevin Durant (11.1 and 81.6) and Nevada’s Nick Fazekas (11.1, 84.8) in 2006-07.

▪  Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson vowed to make his team work harder on defense this season and his renewal of that emphasis is paying for the 23rd-ranked Panthers. In four MVC games, UNI leads the Valley by allowing 47.2 points, 35 percent shooting by opponents and 25.4 percent three-point shooting by opponents.

It hasn’t allowed an MVC opponent to score more than 58 points. The Panthers routed Drake with a 32-2 run in Saturday’s 64-40 win and held the Bulldogs to 3-of-17 shooting in the second half.

“We had a great stretch in the second half against Drake,” Jacobson said. “I still feel like there is some room to get everybody on our team all the way to the highest level from an effort standpoint. We’re close, but we’re not all the way there yet.”

▪  Indiana State’s Devonte Brown made a long three-pointer to beat Southern Illinois 59-56 on Saturday. Lansing considered calling timeout in the final seconds. Brown waved him off and Lansing let his senior go to work.

“I said ‘OK, let’s go,’” Lansing said. “By the time I knew what happened, that thing went right through the net. Talk about intestinal fortitude, that’s Devonte Brown.”

▪ Loyola is making progress, perhaps more quickly than many expected. After going 10-22 last season, the Rambler are 12-4. Coach Porter Moser said he didn’t start the school’s MVC tenure with a timetable for success.

“You continue to try to upgrade your recruiting,” he said. “You try to develop the guys you have in it, and you try to develop your culture. I, no doubt, think our culture is better.”

Junior-college transfers Earl Peterson and Montel James are immediate contributors. James is a starter and Peterson averages 7.8 points off the bench. Freshmen Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Jay Knuth are playing consistent minutes.

The biggest culture change shows in Loyola’s road record. The Ramblers, 0-14 last season, are 4-2 in road games.

“We wanted to become relevant, and we’re not there yet,” he said. “But our arrow is pointing up.”

Trending up

Wichita State — The Shockers played one of their best halves to run past Loyola 67-53 on Sunday. It made 15 of 21 shots and committed one turnover in the second half. Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton shot the ball with confidence, like they do on their best days. There is plenty of room for WSU to improve.

Trending down

Missouri State — Two ugly losses ruined MSU’s 2-0 MVC start. The Bears trailed by 17 before losing 71-56 at Indiana State. On Sunday, Illinois State ran the Bears out of JQH Arena to build a 49-27 halftime lead. The Redbirds won 69-55 after holding the Bears to 35.8 percent shooting. The Bears face Evansville, Northern Iowa and Wichita State in the next week, although two are at home.

Get to know an MVC neighbor

Q: What sport did Southern Illinois star Walt Frazier excel at in high school?

A: Frazier played quarterback at Atlanta’s Howard High and Georgia Tech offered him a scholarship. Frazier chose basketball because, he told USA Today, he knew the NFL didn’t want a black quarterback. He intended to play basketball at Tennessee State before a friend suggested Southern Illinois. He played two seasons for the Salukis, leading them to the 1967 NIT title, and won two NBA titles with the New York Knicks.

One to watch

Illinois State (10-6, 2-2) at Indiana State (8-8, 4-0), 6:05 p.m. Wednesday — The Redbirds are healthier than the first meeting, a 63-61 Indiana State win on Dec. 31. Forward DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is back from a broken hand and center Reggie Lynch’s bad back is improving.