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Down In The Valley: Week In Review, Feb. 18

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Tribune-Star/Austen Leake On fire: Indiana State senior Tyreke Key puts up a three during Wednesday's game between the Sycamores and Evansville at Hulman Center.

One of my favorite stories that I've written for any of the papers I've worked for was when I trekked down to Celina, Tenn. and Murfreesboro, Tenn. back in 2017 to try and unlock the mystery that was Tyreke Key.

If you recall, during Key's senior season at Clay County High School in Celina, he was putting up numbers that seemed unbelievable from up here in Terre Haute. He was averaging 36.9 points when I trekked to the Cumberland Valley, a number that seemed ridiculous. 

I went down to Tennessee with two missions in mind. To find out how his hometown loved him and how he ticked, but more importantly, to find out whether he was legit, as I posed it in the story. Were his numbers being poofed up against inferior competition? Many small-school stars have put up big numbers only to hit their ceiling in college ball, after all.

Discovering Celina and love it had for Key was a lot of fun - even though I'm an upper Midwesterner with no background in living in that part of the world. I will always cherish my trip down to Celina and the many good folks who support him. The hospitality shown to me was wonderful.

What I couldn't have known, what no one could have known, was the surprise Key had in store for the state of Tennessee and poor Loretto High School on the one day in the Tennessee state tournament I was able to attend.

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Tribune-Star/Austen Leake Family support: Tyreke Key's family made the trip up from Tenn. to show support during his final game at Hulman Center on Wednesday.

On March 16, 2017 at the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State, I saw one of the greatest displays of basketball at the high school level that I've ever seen. Key started slow, much as he did at Hulman Center on Wednesday, but once he got going? Nothing stopped him.

Key scored 32 points in the first half of that contest, including an astounding 23 points in the second quarter alone. How high could Key go? Higher than anyone in Tennessee history, as it turned out. Key finished with a Tennessee state tournament record 54 points as Clay County won over a shell-shocked Loretto 75-60. Key also had 13 rebounds in that contest.

It was an incandescent statement of intent, one that had all of Murphy Center, including the fans of all of the other schools playing in that session giving Key a standing ovation.

In my story that chronicled the occasion, I ended it simply with:

"Is Tyreke Key legit? You’re darn right he is."

Flash forward to Wednesday. Key is at the other end of his college journey. Senior Night at Hulman Center. With COVID-19 restrictions in place on fans in attendance, only immediate family could attend, the game against Evansville (one of the programs ISU beat out for Key, incidentally) took on a regretful tone.

Missing were the ISU season ticket holders who have grown to love Key over his four-year career. Missing was a student section that could have given him a proper sendoff. Missing was an army of Celina people trekking up from the mid-South to give their guy love and a proper send-off.

My preview for the game was written around the concept of Key almost getting robbed of his moment. It's no one's fault. ISU is far from the only school playing it safe to keep fans out. And in the grand scheme of things, COVID-19 has claimed far worse victims that anyone's Senior Night, but it still seemed a cruel way for one of ISU's best players to (likely) play his last home game.

All of the above remains true, but in true Key fashion, he decided to make the occasion memorable by letting his basketball do the talking.

It was a quiet start. An early pair of fouls seemed to pour salt in the wounds of a bittersweet Senior Night for Key. He only scored six points at halftime and didn't seem destined to have a huge night, given that ISU center Tre Williams was stealing the show with a monster 20-point first-half.

Why would Key get to score that much when the Purple Aces clearly couldn't stop Williams in the post?

Ah, but that's exactly what unlocked Key from an X-and-O standpoint. Evansville had to devote much more attention to Williams and that opened up driving lanes for Key.

And Key doesn't need an invitation to exploit those types of openings. Given that Evansville seemingly couldn't miss from 3-point range - it was a one-point contest with 10 minutes to go - then Key knew he needed to provide a little bit of extra to help ISU keep its lead.

He went into what he called "takeover mode".

“I wanted to play the best I could especially given that it’s Senior Night,” Key said. “Evansville made a run in the second half and I went into takeover mode.”

Takeover mode was 28 second-half points, including five 3-pointers. Take those out of the equation and Key would have scored an impressive 13 after the break.

Key was everywhere. Driving to the basket, jab-stepping Evansville defenders into trouble, and firing off salvos from the 3-point line. The Aces were 7 of 15 from 3-point range in the second half, but still got out-scored 48-41 in the second half thanks to Key's brilliance.

"He was receiving it off the left elbow and we were in kind of a coverage where we were trying to take away the basket, but he was so powerful that he still got to the basket," Evansville coach Todd Lickliter said. "Then we starting helping from the opposite side, which worked for a while, but he kept exploring it. Then we just kept two things on him. We tried different things, but he got rolling and that's just the way it is. He's good and that's the way it is."

Key hit big game-altering shots too. Evansville drew within one three different and twice Key had the answer with a layup at 11:07 and a 3-pointer at 10:15.

That trey proved in hindsight to be a bit of a dagger. Key would sink another two possessions later and ISU just kept rolling. Of his 28 second-half points, 16 were scored from that 3-pointer at 10:15 and after.

When all was said and done, Key had scored 28 of his career-high 34 points in the second half. That matched the all-time ISU record for points in a second half set by Larry Bird in the 1977 NIT.

When you've reached the rarified air of an ISU Bird record? You have mostly definitely touched the sky. Per usual, Key was blase about it after the game, just like he was after that 54-point outburst he had in high school.

Basketball is the manner in which Key speaks to all of us. And with the season running short, Key is saving his best for last just as he did at Clay County. In the five games ISU has played in February, Key has averaged a ridiculous 26.5 points.

So I suppose it's worth a reminder to that question I asked back in March 2017. Is Key legit? 

As he once again reminded us ... darn right he is.

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Tribune-Star/Austen Leake Big time plays: Indiana State sophomore Tre Williams scores in the lane during Wednesday's game between the Sycamores and Evansville at Hulman Center.

Players

In this space, we'll discuss the week that was for the Sycamores.

• Tyreke Key - Apart from the offensive things I mentioned above, Greg Lansing noted Wednesday that Key has also been much better of the defensive end too.

Also, I think most would have given good odds against Key having the longest Senior Day speech. That's kind of grading on a curve, though. Tobias Howard Jr. and Randy Miller Jr. were both very brief, under 30 seconds each, so Key clocking in at under two minutes gives him the Senior Day crown.

• Tre Williams - After a somewhat quiet Sunday, at least in the scoring column, Williams' first half explosion on Wednesday was the greatest of his career.

The sophomore scored 20 first-half points as Evansville simply had no answer for him. Williams got both Evan Kuhlman and Iven Enaruna into foul trouble as he bulled his way to the basket. Williams' dominant first half is probably the best 20 minutes of scoring I've seen from any ISU center since 2005, the first year I covered the team.

The thing that makes Williams' energy in the paint so impressive is the effort he puts out on the defensive end. Williams is everywhere. Doubling ball-handlers on the perimeter, diving back into the paint to cut off open post players, blocking shots, making weak side rebounds. Williams is a force of nature.

• Jake LaRavia  It's easy to forget that LaRavia dropped 20 on Evansville on Sunday. All told? ISU's big three - Key, Williams and LaRavia dropped a combined 123 points on the Aces in the games on Sunday and Wednesday. That's an insane 61.5 points just between that trio by themselves. 

My God!

• Julian Larry - Though Evansville point guard Shamar Givance played pretty well on Wednesday, Larry's disruption in the Evansville backcourt did cause the Aces some problems. Larry only scored seven points in the series, but three of them came on a big 3-pointer during ISU's second-half surge.

• Randy Miller Jr. - An academic issue for Neese vaulted Miller into the starting lineup. He scored six on Sunday and didn't score at all on Wednesday, but I wonder whether Miller might stay among the starters? He works well with them and knows he doesn't have to be a volume scorer. Moreover, the combination of Neese, Cam Bacote and Tobias Howard Jr. on the floor at the same time spreads opposing defenses out a bit more too. The fact that ISU has someone it can depend on to start in addition to Neese and the rest of the four starters can only mean good things for the Sycamores.

• Cooper Neese - Fewer minutes meant fewer points for Neese - only seven combined in the series. Teams are running Neese off the 3-point line far more frequently than they did earlier in the season. He's adjusted OK, though we're seeing a bit more of the dribble-shoot instead of catch-and-shoot.

• Cobie Barnes - Nothing fancy, just some good blue collar play in the paint and beyond for Barnes. He averaged 4.5 points in the two games, doing a good job of being a foil when defenses collapsed on Williams or LaRavia.

• Cam Bacote - Just like Barnes, Bacote is doing the blue collar and/or smart things to keep the ISU ship steady when substitutions start to occur. And, like Barnes, Bacote averaged 4.5 in the series. If ISU can get nine combined points out of Barnes and Bacote all of the time? That's all it needs.

Tobias Howard Jr. - Howard played very little on Sunday, but increased his load up to 11 minutes on Wednesday. Scoring wasn't in the cards, but Howard's defense was decent and physical.

• Ndongo Ndaw - Ndaw saw how Williams was dominating the paint and decided to get a taste for himself. The big man converted a reverse layup in the first half to score his first points since Jan. 3.

Jared Hankins - Hankins made his first appearance at all since Jan. 3. Good to see him get out there again.

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Tribune-Star/Austen Leake Big shot Sam: Indiana State freshman Sam Mervis (middle) gets swarmed by his teammates sophomore Jake LaRavia (left) and freshman Julian Larry (right) during Wednesday's game between the Sycamores and Evansville at Hulman Center.

Sam Mervis - As good as both Williams and Key were, the biggest reaction from the ISU bench came when Mervis drove the lane and converted a layup near the end of the game to score his first career points. Mervis, a walk-on, works extremely hard during practice and is popular with his teammates as was plainly evident by the mass celebration at games' end. Fun moment.

The league

No series-by-series breakdown this time. Just a general overview.

Drake and Loyola split their weekend series to determine the league leader. That's a great scenario for the MVC as neither team eliminated the other from at-large consideration. Drake has the least margin for error with a weak schedule. Many think Loyola has more wiggle room. We'll see. Those of us who have been around the MVC know to never count your chickens, even when the bracketology smiles on the league.

Missouri State beat Southern Illinois on Wednesday, which almost certainly seals the No. 3 seed for the Bears. ISU, currently in the four-hole, is one game behind with two to play, but the Bears own the tiebreaker, so they would have to lose their final two at Evansville and the Sycamores would have to win their final two at Valparaiso. It's possible, but unlikely.

With its win on Wednesday, ISU cannot drop even as far as the No. 5 spot. Evansville is the only team beneath ISU that could theoretically match them in the loss column, and ISU wins the tiebreaker with the Aces, so that's rendered moot anyway. Every other team below ISU has at least nine MVC losses, three more than ISU has with only two games to play for the Sycamores. So barring a surprise, ISU is almost certainly going to be the No. 4 seed at Arch Madness.

As for that 5-10 race? Good luck parsing all of that. No more than three MVC wins and four MVC losses split current No. 5 Evansville down to No. 10 Illinois State. Several teams in that group play each other too. Have fun, boys! Glad I'm not having to worry about that escape Thursday mess this season.

On a far more serious note, the biggest off-court news occurred at Missouri State last weekend, but far more information on it came to light on Wednesday.

Bradley suddenly suspended Elijah Childs, Ja'Shon Henry, Danya Kingsby and Terry Nolan Jr. — major contributors all — before the two-game Bradley-Missouri State series at JQH Arena. The players were in attendance, which meant whatever happened likely occurred while on the trip. Bradley stayed mum about the reasonings for the suspensions, apart from the all-encompassing, say-nothing reason of "violating team rules".

On Wednesday, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader reported that all four Bradley players appeared in a Springfield police report from Feb. 13. In a still active investigation, charges have not been filed, the incident report described a "sex offense that wasn't rape". The incident took place between 12:45-1:45 a.m. at the Towne Place Suites Hotel in Springfield, the Braves' team hotel, and was reported to the police at 7:36 a.m.

Bradley coach Brian Wardle said the players involved remain suspended indefinitely and they will not play against rival Illinois State on Thursday.

We're in far more serious territory than the usual basketball-related stuff. The worst-case scenario is too awful to think about. The best-case scenario isn't good either. Regardless of whether any charges are ultimately filed, Bradley's players certainly violated COVID-19 protocols, a serious offense, especially given that the season is running down and any late-season COVID stoppage could end a season prematurely.

What a mess.

Observations

— Speaking of COVID-19, Lansing was knocking on wood when asked what ISU will do with it's nine-day break between games. Since ISU has not had any conference-related COVID stoppages, it is off this coming weekend.

Lansing said he wanted the Sycamores to remain steadfast about maintaining discipline on their COVID-19 vigilance. As mentioned above, the stakes are higher than ever. A positive COVID-19 test can happen even if the best of preventative measures are taken, but a positive COVID-19 test from a player letting his guard down? That would be hard to live with if it ended ISU's season prematurely.

— Also related to the pandemic, I tweeted Tuesday and framed my preview around the fact that it was a shame Key didn't get a proper Senior Day.

It is a shame, and knowing now what we didn't know then - that he'd score 34 points - makes it even worse.

However, I want to be clear on one thing - it's not anyone's fault. I think some interpreted my tweet as criticism of ISU for not having fans. That wasn't my intention.

ISU is one of six MVC schools that has only allowed immediate family in for games, or in the case of some of the Illinois schools, no fans at all. There is nothing particularly unique about ISU's fan policy, in fact, it's more norm than exception.

Too often in this day and age, there's this compelling need among some to assign blame to situations that occur beyond anyone's control. COVID-19 is a pandemic, one that no one is truly to blame for. It's a bad thing that happened and it's had an incalculable effect on everyone's lives, but that doesn't mean fingers needed to be pointed at the organizations, like ISU, that have been forced to deal with it.

And let's be honest, too. The weekend prior at Northern Iowa? It was nice to have fans in, but also risky. Iowa hasn't covered itself in glory in its COVID-19 response, which is why its test positivity rate has been far higher than either Indiana or Illinois. I didn't feel comfortable and I was relatively isolated.

All it takes is one small group of fans to get spread going and lives are altered, shattered, or possibly even ended. I honestly don't have a problem with ISU's policy at all.

That doesn't mean that I don't feel sad for the players who have had to live with it. It's just a bad deal, but there's no one to blame for it.

— ISU finished its home season with a 9-3 mark, this in a year where "home games" were hardly that. ISU was 12-1 at home in 2020. ISU has never had a losing record at home under Lansing, not even during the low of the 11-20 season in 2017. Every coach that came before Lansing going back to Ron Greene had at least one losing home record on their ledger.

So, tell me, why is Lansing on the hot seat again?

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