It starts with Jake Odum. Of course it does. Where would Indiana State be without this 6-4 senior guard and Terre Haute native?
Greg Lansing knows. He's been the coach for as long as Odum has been a Sycamore. Together they've helped forge a 21-8 season and put the program on the cusp -- they hope -- of NCAA Tourney participation, either by automatic bid (by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tourney title) or by at-large selection.
Odum thrives without dominance. His scoring is slightly down this season (he averages 13.0 points, about half a point less than last year); he rebounds well for a guard (4.5); and he's a great decision maker (130 assists to 55 turnovers). He just broke Larry Bird's school career free throw record of 542.
“You look at where the program has gone since he's been here for those four years,” Lansing said. “(Creighton coach) Greg McDermott said that first year, he's going to make you look like a good coach. I certainly agree with that.
“Jake is the ultimate competitor. He's a hard worker on and off the court. He's a tremendous leader who does the right things. He is certainly a large part and, played a large role, in elevating this program.”
Odum is not a one-man team. Three other Sycamores average in double figures: forwards Manny Arop (11.1 points, 4.4 rebounds) and Khristian Smith (11.0, 4.4), and guard Dawon Cummings (10.2 points). Center Justin Gant averages 9.9 points and 4.0 rebounds.
“We're a team with a lot of veterans back as well as some new guys,” Lansing said. “We've finally gotten the focus of continuing to get better. We've been banged up a little bit, but we haven't suffered any losses because of that.
“Our goal is to not look past anybody, get better every day and continue to improve so when we go into (postseason play), we're playing our best ball.”
Has Indiana State exceeded expectations?
Not a chance, Lansing said.
“I don't know if I'd say we exceeded anything. I'm happy where we've taken the program. We've won 18-plus games for four straight seasons for the first time in 118 years in school history. We've had a lot of big wins. We've been in three straight postseasons and we'll make the postseason this year. We've done some good things. I think the reputation of the program has risen as well.
“Are we exceeding anything? No. We've talked about winning championships every year.”
Still, this success has been four years in the making. There were signs in 2011 when Indiana State was the surprise Missouri Valley Conference tourney champ to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament and finished with a 20-14 record.
The Sycamores followed that with consecutive 18-15 records. The first one earned them a spot in the lightly regarded CollegeInsiders.com tournament. The second got them into the NIT.
Indiana State made a big early season statement by winning by 13 at Notre Dame, although that significance has lessened as the Irish have struggled. Still, it confirmed early season hype that had the Sycamores projected to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference to Wichita State, a Final Four team last year.
There is more pressure to win now, and that's a good thing, Lansing said.
“Last year we were disappointed with 18 wins. We want our fans to take ownership of this program and be excited when we win and be upset when we lose. It's all part of it.
“Our job is to get quality student athletes and try to win a bunch of games. That's what this staff and I have tried to do. We think we're doing a good job. You always want more -- more championships, more NCAA Tournaments. That's what we're striving for.”
Striving is one thing. Doing is another. Indiana State hasn't blown through the season with the greatest of ease. It had a pair of one-point losses to Belmont and Tulsa. It edged Pepperdine, Bradley and Southern Illinois by three, Drake by four. In the last week it's lost two MVC road games to put it in strong NIT consideration.
Still, that the Sycamores have thrived with a tough-minded resiliency, Lansing said, isn't an accident.
“It comes with having veterans on your team, and we have good players and veteran guards. We have two seniors in Odum and Cummings who have the ball in their hands a lot at the end of games.
“You have to have guys who can make plays and have the toughness to step up and make free throws. We've been getting better as a team at getting stops down the stretch.”
What are the keys the rest of the way?
“We have to continue to improve,” Lansing said. “That's been our focus. Last year we plateaued and didn't get better down the stretch. The teams that can improve at the end of February and into March are the teams that play in tournaments and advance in tournaments. We've been doing that. We've been getting better at both ends of the floor. We want to be a tough team to play against and have a chance every night.”
What lies ahead...
To make the NCAA Tourney: Indiana State gets an automatic bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tourney title. For an at-large selection it likely needs to make at least the conference tourney semifinals. Making the finals should lock in a bid.
To make the NIT: Indiana State has done enough.
To make the CBI or CollegeInsider.com Tourney: Indiana State has done enough.