TERRE HAUTE —
Can Teri Moren lift Indiana State, last year’s seventh-place team in the Missouri Valley Conference, to one of the league’s contenders in her first year on campus?
Despite a 6-5 record — including a dismal 1-4 mark away from Hulman Center — Moren plans to do just that in a league that looks strong at the top and possibly deep as well.
“The team is, other than the record, right where I thought it would be,” Moren said. “We’re in a good place.”
As true as that may be, several other MVC teams are in good places.
Illinois State, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Creighton and Drake all have talent similar to the Sycamores. The MVC has one of the best nonconference cumulative records in league history, and ranks a solid ninth in conference RPI rankings.
Missouri State (9-3) ranks 10th in the NCAA in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 33-percent shooting.
With the league’s best player, 6-foot junior point guard Casey Garrison (17 ppg), MSU is the favorite to win the regular-season title and go dancing in March.
Count the Sycamores among the teams who should believe they can prevent the Bears from doing that for a MVC-leading 14th time. ISU is still looking for trip No. 1, for those fans in need of the reminder.
Like MSU, the Sycamores have defended well for most of the nonconference season.
ISU’s defense, while having had meltdowns, has been stout, holding opponents to 35.7 percent from the field for 50th in the NCAA, which is an encouraging sign.
Despite the disheartening losses — to a talented-but-young Tennessee-Martin team, to a mediocre Butler team, to a mediocre Florida International team — Moren expects those to be learning experiences.
“Hopefully what happened at Butler, what happened at UT-Martin will help us at some point in the Valley,” Moren said.
The ability — and more importantly toughness — of ISU sophomore point guard Taylor Whitley should provide hope for ISU fans that a Sycamore team can end that NCAA futility sometime soon.
The statistics show Whitley has made important improvement in playmaking with a league-high 4.7 assists per game. While she’s far from a finished product, Whitley can help ISU contend by using her speed and strength near the basket.
“I think if you look across the board at the teams that are in the tournament and do well, they have two things in common. I think they have a tremendous point guard and I think they have a tremendous post presence,” Moren said. “Anytime you have those two things working for you, and you have kids around you that play their roles and do what they’re asked to do, you can set yourself up for success.”
Shannon Thomas, a 6-4 post player, is averaging 17.8 points and 12.8 rebounds during her last four games. If she can produce anywhere close to that, while continuing to block and alter shots defensively, she has a chance to be the best center in the MVC.
Thomas has to be prepared for tougher competition, and she should be after gaining valuable experience the past two years.
“The question being is, will Shannon Thomas sustain what she’s been doing? My hope is that will be yes, that she’ll continue to put up the numbers that she’s left us with at the break, because there’s no doubt that Taylor Whitley is going to get better as a point guard as the season goes on,” Moren said. “Brittany [Schoen is] always going to give you great minutes, and [Kelsie] Cooley’s always going to give you those hustle minutes. We’ve got a lot to look forward to in Valley play.”
Deja Mattox has also brought aggressive play the last couple weeks, getting to the free-throw line with regularity and knocking down some outside shots.
While Cooley may be that glue type of player that brings it all together, Schoen can provide the same stability in the backcourt.
Schoen, whose average of 3.3 3-pointers per game ranks seventh in the nation, pointed out that the Sycamores have a chance to get off to a strong start in MVC action with three games at home. ISU plays Northern Iowa on Thursday, Bradley on Saturday and then Illinois State at home Jan. 8.
The Sycamores went 2-7 on the road last year in MVC play. A winning road record is typically the only way to earn a conference title.
A formidable task?
But Moren and her staff have this team heading in the right direction, with roles becoming more defined in recent weeks.
With a more mature team overall, a more resillient ISU should at least return to the top half of the conference standings in 2011.