Down In The Valley: UMSL musings

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SPT 113019 ISU BB NEESE SHOT

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Leading scorer: Indiana State's Cooper Neese shoots over Missouri-St. Louis' Jalen Wilkins-McCoy and makes the shot during the Sycamores' 62-55 win on Saturday at Hulman Center.

Anyone whose read my stuff over the years knows my feelings about any Indiana State athletic program playing against non-Division I competition.

I hate it. I think it's a waste of time. And I don't like to spend too many words on these games, which are usually predictable affairs.

I mostly feel the same in the wake of ISU's 62-55 win over Missouri-St. Louis. Probably the only so-called fancy word I can conjure for the performance is perfunctory.

It bothers me, though, and I know it bothers a lot of fans because I heard from a few on Saturday, that the Sycamores seem to be so easily taken off-task, even in games like this.

Whether it's by the opponent or own their own, ISU just seems programmed to switch off when they feel the tiniest bit of comfort they've created for themselves or discomfort forced upon them by the opposition.

ISU led 17-10 in the early going against the Tritons. To that point, UMSL did what a lot of Division II teams do against Division I teams. They missed a lot of open looks. They forced some not-so-open shots and they turned the ball over. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The problem is that the Sycamores just don't handle even minimal prosperity well. By no means was the game even close to being over, but ISU started to play like it was. There were some seriously ill-advised shots and switch-offs on the defensive end that would suggest ISU was up 30, not by single-digits.

Predictably, UMSL began to chip away and eventually took the lead away from the Sycamores.

I have no idea what ISU thought they had done to warrant the drop in intensity, concentration and effort. Like I said above, this team gets way too comfortable with minimal accomplishment.

The second part of the equation, the opponent forcing their will on the Sycamores, was more in evidence when ISU attempted to respond. UMSL packed it in, as most teams do, but ISU played into the Tritons' hands by remaining passive and forcing low-percentage shots.

ISU sees some version of pack-line almost every game. The Sycamores ought to be pretty used to it, but it doesn't also appear so.

Finally, ISU unlocked itself in the final nine minutes when UMSL began to wear down (and they lost steady guard Yaakema Rose to an injury early in the second half) and ISU finally began to find its inner attack mode. 

My acid test on these games is whether the effort was good enough to beat a stronger, MVC opponent. My answer would be no. Many of the shots UMSL missed are made by most MVC teams. ISU also isn't likely going to have a 24-3 disparity in foul shots taken either.

No one expects ISU to be at prime execution for 40 minutes in every game, but what I think fans do expect is that the effort and sense of urgency are at an even keel throughout a game. The Sycamores are still chasing that rabbit.

Players

Note: In this space, we'll discuss some, but not all, players who played.

• Cooper Neese (19 points)  Neese continued to score for the Sycamores, following up on good games at the Junkanoo Jam. Neese was 4-for-6 from 3-point range, though he was guilty of a couple of the forced shots, including a fall-away 3-pointer in the first half that had Greg Lansing saying, "Why, Cooper? Why?" from the bench.

The thing I noticed on Saturday, and it's not a particularly original observation, is that Neese tends to be better when he's catching-and-shooting flat-footed rather than moving on his shot. He had a 3-point attempt taken from nearly the same space on the floor. The flat-footed one was nothing but net, but he was a bit left on the same shot he took while in slight motion.

• Tyreke Key (16 points)  Key takes a beating during games, but he keeps on attacking and he keeps on getting to the free throw line. He was 9-for-9 on Saturday.

How many free throw attempts might Key have this season? He's averaging 6.2 attempts per game and he's only missed three of his 44 attempts so far.

• Chris Agbo (4 points, 6 rebounds)  I thought Agbo's insertion into the ISU lineup in the second half when the game was still in the balance was a big key. He provided some energy and toughness on both ends of the floor and it seemed to wake the Sycamores up.

Agbo is a project, in some respects, but he doesn't play timid and he is willing to mix it up in the lane. He was important on Saturday.

Observations

— It was Hulman Center's mid-construction rollout for the public on Saturday.

By far the most noticeable difference was the lighting. Hulman Center is usually lit up so brightly it can be seen from space even through the roof, so it was strange to see the place lit, more or less, like a normal arena anywhere else is.

I really liked it. The lights were located above the court and did the job they needed to do without highlighting the "pardon our dust" situation in the background of Hulman Center.

I was concerned that the baseline lights might wreak havoc on shooters, but the ISU players who I asked about it said it wasn't a big deal. 

The dust, which is ever-present, didn't have too much of an effect on the game. I saw, maybe, two slips in the game, and that's pretty normal.

The backboards did seem to have a bit of grime on them and the players did mention that. I was told that the spots are on the back of the backboard glass, an area that doesn't normally need to be cleaned, but does now.

It will be interesting to see how Hulman Center changes over the course of the season.

— The only other MVC game on Saturday was Evansville's 70-64 come-from-behind win at IUPUI. Let's quickly take the temperature of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Coming out of the MTE's, Northern Iowa is the class of the MVC at 7-1. The Panthers have beaten Old Dominion and South Carolina and narrowly lost to West Virginia. Most expected UNI to leap back towards league title contention this year, and so far, they have lived up to the billing.

Drake is 6-2 and Bradley is 5-2, but both have played relatively weak schedule. Bradley did beat Kansas State, but it's not a vintage Wildcats team. Drake's best win is probably Murray State, but the Racers aren't as good as they were last year either.

Valparaiso is 5-3 and a bit of a mixed bag, but better than most thought it would be. The season-opening win against Toledo is decent, and the Crusaders pushed Cincinnati to overtime in a loss.

Evansville is also 5-3 and had the big win over then-No. 1 Kentucky, but the Aces have been all over the map. I doubt many teams can claim a win over UK and a 17-point loss to East Carolina. Coach Walter McCarty isn't messing around. He's already sent a message via reduced playing time in individual games for both Sam Cunliffe and Deandre Williams.

Loyola is 4-4, including a fall-from-ahead one-point loss to Colorado State on Tuesday. Tate Hall (14.4) has emerged, but the Ramblers have shot the ball poorly from 3-point range and are allowing opponents to shoot well from beyond the arc.

Illinois State and Southern Illinois are both 3-4. The Salukis haven't beaten anyone of consequence and have lost one of their few experienced players - Aaron Cook - to an injury for at least a month.

The Redbirds got a nice win against Belmont to start, but lost four in a row after a 2-0 start, albeit against Central Florida, Cincinnati, Western Kentucky and Grand Canyon.

I'm not sure what to think about MVC favorite Missouri State at 3-5. Four of their five losses were by four points or less, including a controversial defeat at No. 21 Xavier and a one-point loss to a good Buffalo team. That would seem to indicate that a correction in MSU's favor is in order.

On the other hand? The Bears are 310th in the nation in turnovers and rank in the 200s in every shooting category.

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