Mark Bennett: Lessons from hoops in the cold, snowy heartland

Jan. 11—One day, you're rolling through life without a stumble.

The next, it's like walking barefoot over stray Legos scattered over the living room floor.

And then a snowstorm hits.

College basketball dealt those extremes to the Indiana State Sycamores this week as they toured Iowa, the land of vast cornfields, durable residents and a once-every-four-years influx of politicians from warm-weather states pretending they feel right at home in chilly gymnasiums and diners with frost-covered windows.

On Sunday, coach Josh Schertz's team ground out a 77-66 victory over aggressive Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. ISU essentially won with one arm tied behind its back. Two Sycamore regulars spent much of the second half on the bench with four fouls. So, Schertz sent in reserves, who shined even in rarely used player combinations.

ISU was the only undefeated team in Missouri Valley Conference play at 4-0. Five voters in the national USA Today Coaches Top 25 Poll checked the Sycamores on their ballots for this week. College hoops guru Andy Katz listed ISU's subsequent game — Wednesday night's clash with defending MVC champ Drake at Des Moines — as the 10th best one to watch.

And it was.

The setting could've been sedate. After all, Drake, a historic private university and Des Moines were absorbing presidential aspirants Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis for a CNN-televised debate Wednesday night and a separate and simultaneous, of course, Donald Trump "town hall" on Fox News. Also, Drake's students don't return from winter break until Jan. 29.

Yet, an attentive, inspired crowd of 4,069 filled cozy Knapp Center, fueling the competition on the floor.

It was intense. The Sycamores and Bulldogs surged in alternating waves. Three-pointers swirled like the latest round of snowfall outside. ISU sank 11 of its 30 long shots, including four by deceptively smooth-shooting 6-foot-10 middle man Robbie Avila, and three by relentless guard Ryan Conwell. Drake nailed 10 of its 25 shots beyond the arc, and Bulldogs star Tucker DeVries dropped in six of those.

Free throw shooting was laser-like, too. ISU hit 23 of 25 foul shots, and Drake sank 19 of 21.

And with just 9 minutes and 36 seconds left to play, the score was a rope-tight 61-60, Drake up.

That's when the crowd got loudest, and the Bulldogs shifted into a fifth gear. They scored 28 points in just 12 possessions.

Schertz called the Drake explosion "impossible."

As the lesson of college hoops goes, Drake was coming off a miserable performance on Sunday. The Bulldogs got whupped at MVC foe Belmont 87-65 to fall out of a first-place tie with the Sycamores.

That same day, ISU was beating Northern Iowa to stay atop the MVC mountain. Temporarily.

"I was extremely proud of the guys and the way they responded," said Drake coach Darian DeVries, also Tucker's dad. "We had a bad day on Sunday and we learned from it. We put it behind us and we got back to the way we like to play basketball. That's physical, tough and aggressive."

Meanwhile, Schertz was less than pleased with his team's finish in Wednesday's fifth conference game. They turned the ball over 15 times, and Drake used those mistakes to generate 18 points, more than enough to register an 11-point victory.

"We were poor offensively, poor defensively, poor with our effort, poor detail. So, it was really across-the-board below the line in terms of where we need to be," Schertz said. "The better team won tonight. We've got to go back to work and get better, because they're clearly, at this stage of the season, a better team than we are."

Key phrase, "at this stage of the season."

Second chances come in college basketball, and usually elsewhere in life. The Sycamores come back home to Indiana to play a 2 p.m. Saturday game in Hulman Center against Belmont, one of five teams deadlocked for first place in the Missouri Valley at 4-1. ISU has an impressive overall record of 13-3. Belmont's mark is solid, too, at 11-5 after a 67-60 win over visiting Illinois State on Wednesday night.

"In this league, there's no let-up. It's unrelenting," Schertz said as the last of the fans walked out of Knapp Center and his Sycamores prepared for the flight home. "It's one of the next, and the next. It's the same thing Drake did — you've got to respond."

Don't we all.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or