ST. LOUIS —
The Indiana State men were picked where in the MVC Preseason poll?
The Sycamores tied for fifth last year and have seven players back from a postseason team. Terre Haute is so excited about this team. They had to be picked in the top half of the league, right?
Wait ... they were picked seventh?
The women’s team — with a new coach, a new attitude, a lot of returning talent, and a tradition of league success — they should be a lead-pipe cinch to be in the top half of the league. Shouldn’t they?
They were picked eighth? Really? They occupy the worst MVC preseason position for the ISU women since 1997?
It would be a surprise if fans of ISU’s basketball programs agreed with league observers as to where they rate in the MVC pecking order. It wouldn’t be a surprise to assume that many ISU fans are going to be disappointed, perhaps even angry, over the perceived lack of respect.
But don’t let it get to you. Certainly, the players don’t waste too much time worrying about it. During Tuesday’s Missouri Valley Conference media day in St. Louis, the ISU men were represented by Jake Kelly and Dwayne Lathan and the women by Kelsie Cooley. None of them were overly concerned about how and where they’re perceived.
“It’s too easy to get caught up in how other people think. We have to focus on how what we do as a team, how we practice, how we approach games. If we do that, things will take care of themselves,” Cooley said.
“It’s nothing we’re not used to, but we want to prove ourselves even more this year because we lost Harry [Marshall], Rashad [Reed] and Josh [Crawford]. We have a new coach, a new system, we have to prove ourselves,” Lathan said.
Their perspective makes sense. Much less so than fans, or even coaches, players have their own jobs to worry about. They ultimately have to put a program’s money where its mouth is. They have their own expectations that the public often doesn’t know about and that sometimes doesn’t jive with even their own fans’ perceptions.
In other words, it would be a waste of a player’s time to spend any time worrying about what other people think about them.
“As a competitor, you think you’re the best. You’re not going to let someone else’s opinion affect you,” ISU guard Jake Kelly said.
Preseason polls are fun. They generate discussion. Nearly all of the league’s observers — coaches, sports information directors, radio play-by-play men and newspaper beat writers comprise the voting pool — take the polls very seriously when they do their voting. I know I’m in a constant state of assessment throughout the off-season before I turn in my poll every year ... and that still doesn’t make it easy when it comes time to put choices down to pen and paper.
If there are agendas amongst the voters — and I don’t think there are among the vast majority of them — there’s nothing to be gained it. Sometimes traditonal powers get the benefit of the doubt versus an emerging program, and that might be biting ISU a bit at present, but that has far more to do with human nature than it does any kind of organized “conspiracy.”
That doesn’t mean the players don’t create a pecking order of their own in private. Focused on their own jobs though they may be, they’re not completely insular. It’s also their job to have at least a cursory knowledge of the teams in the rest of the league, so privately, they play the same game the public and media do when it comes to sizing up the competition.
“There’s teams we’re worried about and there’s teams we’re not worried about. That’s how I think about it. We talk about where we are too and I definitely don’t think we’re seventh,” Lathan said.
“You have to give your own team first, but we do talk about who’s got who back, we compare the teams, but we ignore the fact that people think we’re seventh,” Kelly said.
In the end, preseason polls ultimately mean nothing. The only time a team’s place in the polls is remembered is when they greatly exceed expectations — as Drake did in 2008 when it won the MVC championship — or vice versa.
The beauty of basketball, as opposed to FCS football, is that polls have zero bearing on who makes the postseason. Preseason polls matter a little bit in major college football because it sets the table for the rest of the season. Basketball doesn’t have to worry about that.
And certainly, within the framework of the MVC, the round-robin schedule determines a true champion. The Sycamores will get their chance to prove they’re better than seventh and eighth, respectively, in the fairest way possible ... by playing everyone twice.
So don’t sweat the preseason polls too much. In a couple of weeks, when the real games begin, you’ll have likely forgotten what you were upset about.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.