TERRE HAUTE —
You’d think I’d have learned by now.
It’s 20 games into Indiana State’s men’s basketball season and I still expect the Sycamores’ offense operate like a well-oiled machine from the opening tip.
Then 30 minutes into a game, invariably during a stretch where ISU’s offense is bogged down, I’m left scratching my head as to how this team has played its way into Missouri Valley Conference contention and the NCAA Tournament at-large conversation. Saturday’s 59-58 victory over Northern Iowa at Hulman Center on Saturday was no exception.
With ISU down five with 11 minutes to go against UNI and frustrated with what I was seeing from ISU’s offense, I simply tweeted, “yuck.”
But I should know better. Twenty games have proven that you don’t judge the Sycamores’ book by its cover. Or its first 30 minutes chapters.
Skip ahead to the last 10 minutes of ISU’s games. That’s where the story of the Sycamores’ season is written … one which has ISU at 6-3 and in third place at the MVC’s mid-point.
In its nine MVC games so far, ISU has outscored its opponent in the final 10 minutes of four of them and has been even in the final 10 minutes of two other MVC games.
That’s not overwhelming evidence of ISU’s late-game prowess, but a deeper look into the numbers reveals a different story. In the last 10 minutes of its MVC games — 25 percent of the game — ISU has only once failed to amass 25 percent or more of its points in that span once.
Sometimes, the late-game scoring percentages are drastic. ISU scored 38 percent of its points in the final 10 minutes of its Jan. 19 win over Evansville. It was 35 percent in Saturday’s victory over UNI. The high-water mark was 42 percent in its Jan. 9 loss at Southern Illinois.
Some of that is down to late-game free throws … even if ISU hasn’t always excelled in that department. Saturday’s 10 of 11 performance at the line being an exception.
But late-game free throws don’t explain ISU’s improved second-half shooting in seven of its nine MVC games. The difference was stark against UNI. ISU shot 28 percentage points better in the second half Saturday than it did in the first half.
The Sycamores’ timing is uncanny as the last 10 minutes are obviously the best time to turn it on. The Sycamores have either shot or defended their way into contention in the final minute of nearly every one of its games. It’s what got ISU over the top in Hawaii as it hung in there and outfoxed Ole Miss and Miami for key nonconference victories.
Only once in MVC play — its 79-66 loss at Creighton on Jan. 5 — has the game not been in ISU’s reach with two minutes to go.
Is ISU’s late-game bravura by design? Not necessarily. It’s not as if ISU is trying to pull off some elaborate rope-a-dope and lull opponents into a false sense of security.
ISU tries to establish offensive flow from tipoff. ISU almost always starts games with the idea of getting post feeds to attack the basket. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes ISU falls a bit too in love with long-range jump shots it hasn’t consistently converted this season.
But one thing ISU is great at is biding its time. For most of the season, ISU has been patient enough to work through rough patches, unlock the opposing defense, and let the game come to them offensively. Combined with their often stingy defense, its been a recipe for success.
As ever, ISU’s fulcrum is point guard Jake Odum. The junior’s default mission is to get his teammates involved and in a rhythm first. If that happens, then Odum doesn’t have to worry about attacking the basket himself. It explains why he sometimes has only a few points at halftime of games.
But if the situation calls for it, Odum goes into attack mode, and that’s what happened Saturday. Down six late in the first half, Odum got ISU pointed in the right direction by attacking the paint. He scored six points in a row for ISU to pull the Sycamores within a point of the Panthers.
He did it again in the second half. Down seven, Odum went to the hole and converted a traditional three-point play to get ISU untracked.
Once unlocked, UNI’s defense had little to offer against ISU’s attack mode. In the final 10 minutes, ISU scored all but six of its 27 points in the paint or at the free throw line.
ISU’s late-game revivals may not be by design, but it does fall into ISU’s cherished “grind” mentality. So whether by design or not, it’s what works for the Sycamores. It’s how they roll.
“We grind on them. The games we’ve won we’ve outscored teams in the paint. As the game progresses, and they start wearing down, we grind them on defense and offense. It takes a toll on the other team,” Odum said.
So don’t judge the Sycamores by the first 30 minutes. If 20 games and a 13-7 record are any indication, this team saves its best for last.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or email@example.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.