Down In The Valley: Illinois State road musings

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Sycamores lay an egg at Redbird Arena

Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing directs his team during the first half of the Sycamores' Missouri Valley Conference game against Illinois State on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, at Redbird Arena in Normal, Ill.

Down In The Valley is going to be a bit truncated this time.

Why? Because I fouled out at Redbird Arena on Saturday.

Actually, it's because I've been under the weather, but Indiana State's 74-67 loss at Illinois State on Saturday was morphed out of all recognition by, to quote Marv Levy from several NFL Films sound bytes through the years, "over-officious jerks".

The fouls got out of hand ... way out of hand. The best thing that happened to the Sycamores in the immediate wake of Saturday's loss, at least among folks who were interacting with me, was that fans were more upset about the officiating than the Sycamores performance.

The officials provided cover in a sense, because that was a pretty awful performance from the Sycamores. During the four-game win streak, ISU had progressively improved, hitting a crescendo in the wipeout of Loyola last Wednesday.

But this was a no-show. From the opening minutes to the first media timeout, you could tell straightaway that the Sycamores were going to struggle.

That tentative look they took on offensively just before the win streak began (and really, in the Bradley game after it began) reared its ugly head again. Illinois State played good defense, and as expected, demonstrated some pride after they were beaten by 20 at Missouri State in the Redbirds' previous game. Credit to the Redbirds for that.

But where was the tough response from the Sycamores? They just took it from Illinois State. All night. At very few points, maybe the bitter end when it was way too little and too late, were the Sycamores the more aggressive team. And it's not as if Illinois State shot lights out. The Redbirds left the Sycamores plenty of chances to get a foothold in the game.

The inconsistency is just baffling. I don't understand how that toughness trait comes and goes so dramatically. I mean, I've seen it before, but I still don't understand how that happens.

It goes without saying that an elite-level Missouri Valley Conference team wins this game. ISU thought it was on the cusp on being one of the elite teams after the Loyola win. With a win on Saturday? ISU would have been 8-4 in league play and in the mix.

ISU had put itself in a position to be in a trap game. That sounds like a weird way to put it, but bad and mediocre teams don't have trap games, only good teams do. Or only teams that aspire to be good.

I said as much on Harry Schroeder's podcast last week and as I asked Greg Lansing on Friday before the game about this being a trap game. It absolutely was for the Sycamores.

And they got trapped.

Did ISU let the big win over Loyola linger too much? Everyone I asked said no, but what would you expect them to say? Clearly, something made the Sycamores more timid than they've been in the last two weeks.

Does one loss negate the four-game win streak that came before it? Of course not. ISU's 7-5 MVC record is evidence enough that they've done more good than bad in league play this year.

But this was a chance to do more than just the minimum. This was a chance to cement the Sycamores' place among the MVC's top three. This was a chance to show once and for all to everyone in the league that the off-nights and wild inconsistencies of past ISU teams were history.

This was a chance to demonstrate that the Sycamores could be as road tough as they've been home tough this season.

The Sycamores couldn't do it. They were never really at the races. 

I'd like to point out that the schedule gets difficult in the next several games, so in the grand scheme, this loss was damaging in that respect, but that's kind of pointless, no?

There are no easy marks for the Sycamores, not even winless Evansville, if they don't bring the kind of intensity and nastiness that they had against Loyola and at Missouri State before that. If they're as timid as they were on Saturday night? They won't beat anyone.

The Sycamores know how to do it, but they can't get complacent about how they go about doing it. Saturday night was the wake-up call to let the Sycamores they still have to work hard to "arrive" in this league. Hopefully, they learned the right lesson.

Observations

— I didn't do the usual player breakdown. I can't honestly think of any ISU player who played up to his capability on Saturday or who did anything noteworthy. It was a collective letdown.

Sycamores lay an egg at Redbird Arena

Bloomington Pantagraph/Lewis MarienLooking for some room: Indiana State’s Jordan Barnes works against Illinois State defender Zach Copeland (2) during the first half of Saturday’s Missouri Valley Conference game at Redbird Arena in Normal, Ill.

— A total of 53 fouls were called in the contest ... 53! And of those? There were 34 called in the second half. What an unwatchable mess this game was. I can't imagine actually playing in it.

NCAA national coordinator of officials J.D. Collins was on-hand. The theory being espoused by those of us in the media suite was the the officiating crew didn't want to look bad in front of the big boss.

Except, I've never understood why being good at officiating, or trying to make the impression that you're good at officiating, equates to more foul calls. I think officials get it in their head that if they miss a call, they're being downgraded, but aren't excessive calls also a means to be downgraded?

Some of the calls both ways were egregious. Christian Williams getting dinged for making extremely minor contact while trying to chase down a loose ball was the worst one.

Some fans were also upset about the charging call on Tyreke Key near the ISU bench early in the second half, and my initial reaction watching live was that it was bad, but replay seemed to confirm the Illinois State defender had position.

Officials have a tough job. I couldn't do it and neither could you. The lack of respect they get is unacceptable, a symptom of a societal ill where you want what you want when you want it, and most of the time, you want it now.

However, officials can overwhelm a game if they can't read the game and call a game without some regard to how watchable or unwatchable the game is.

Does this fall under officiating by spirit of the law rather than the letter of it? Probably, but I'd rather have that than the dreck I watched in the second half on Saturday supposedly officiated by the letter of the law. This is entertainment at the end of the day. Nothing about that game was entertaining thanks to the over-abundance of whistles.

It's a shame because I actually think in most of ISU's games this year, officials have not been heavy on the whistle. There's been a few halves that never reached the double bonus. I think there was at least one where the bonus wasn't reached at all.

When a team (Illinois State) is in the bonus near the first media timeout? You know it's going to be a long night.

— As stupefying as Saturday's game was — at one point, I tweeted that the game violated the Geneva Convention (because it was torture ... get it?) — this wasn't the worst I've seen.

I had not-so-fond memories of a game played at Roberts Stadium during the Kevin McKenna era that I thought had more fouls called in it. I thought 55 fouls were called in that "classic" of yore, but surely, the intervening years had built up the total in my mind, right?

Well, I looked it up. And actually? I underestimated what a crap show that 2009 game at Evansville was.

In that game, a 63-57 loss to the Purple Aces, there was a total of 57 fouls called, including 37 in the second half. It's giving me the shakes just thinking about it.

The other thing Saturday's game had in common with it's ancestor? ISU got off to a terrible start. The Sycamores, who struggled for most of 2009 before getting hot late, were 3 of 21 from the field in the first half against Evansville.

Actually, that's far worse than the Sycamores were on Saturday. Hey ... it can always be worse.

— It was a partial MVC schedule on Saturday. Southern Illinois continued its magical run with a magical game-winning shot by Marcus Domask against Missouri State. Domask managed to drop a guarded jumper at the buzzer to send SIU to a 68-66. Everyone keeps waiting for the shoe to drop in Carbondale, but it hasn't.

Northern Iowa rallied past Drake 78-68 in Cedar Falls. A.J. Green scored 34 and led a UNI rally as Drake led well into the second half.

On Sunday, Loyola hosts Valparaiso and Bradley hosts Evansville. ISU goes to Bradley on Wednesday and guess what? The Braves anticipate having forward Elijah Childs back. Sycamores better come out with an improved effort than they did in their other central Illinois stop.

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