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Mark Bennett: A loss might actually turn out to be beneficial, Sycamore fans

Feb. 16—On a cold, snowy January night in Des Moines, Iowa, Indiana State coach Josh Schertz sat down at press row in an emptying Knapp Center on the Drake University campus and said something that should be tacked on every basketball team's locker-room bulletin board, or on every family's refrigerator.

His Sycamores had just gotten overwhelmed by the host Bulldogs' nearly perfect second-half performance. ISU lost 89-78.

"In this league, win or lose, it's about learning and responding," Schertz told me. "So people will overreact to wins, they'll overreact to losses. We've just got to come back, lick our wounds, learn from this game, take the truth — we can't run away from anything — and then get ready for another great challenge Saturday."

Then the third-year Sycamore coach rejoined his disappointed team and prepared for the trip back to Terre Haute.

The world does that a lot — overreacting to success, overreacting to defeat.

Euphoria surrounding the Sycamore basketball team reached a zenith this week, and understandably so. Indiana State entered the week with eye-popping records of 22-3 overall and 13-1 atop the Missouri Valley Conference. Schertz's team had won nine straight games since the Drake loss, the lone blot on the MVC slate. Fans rightly clamored for the Sycamores to get more national recognition, and it came. They broke into the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday at No. 23. It was ISU's first Top 25 appearance since Larry Bird and his teammates were ranked No. 1 in the 1978-79 season's final AP poll.

Nostalgic pride flowed, as it should.

One day later, the Missouri Valley grind continued, as 10th-place Illinois State came to Hulman Center. The Redbirds played hungrier and sharper. They humbled the Sycamores 80-67 on Tuesday as 5,988 fans watched.

Analyses and theories for the letdown flowed — the top six Sycamore regulars are tired, they forced too many 3-pointers.

The MVC grind continues Saturday night. The first-place Sycamores play a 7 p.m. game at fourth-place Southern Illinois in Carbondale. SIU Arena (now known as Banterra Center) is always a tough place to play. ISU teams have won in Carbondale just 12 times in 65 tries since the series began 108 years ago.

Saturday's game, just like Tuesday's Illinois State game, poses real challenges, regardless of the opponents' records.

And, it's quite possible the Sycamores could rebound from the Illinois State loss and resume their powerful performances. Regardless, that loss to the Redbirds has its consequences. It could knock ISU out of the Top 25, and undoubtedly will be branded a "bad loss" on the team's NCAA Tournament resume.

But the NCAA deck remains stacked against mid-major programs like ISU. Even if the Sycamores had beaten Illinois State and then won the MVC regular-season title with a 19-1 conference record, but lost a game in the MVC Tournament, they'd still likely endure scrutiny as a "bubble team" hoping for an at-large berth. Imagine that — going through the conference with just one loss still isn't convincing enough. (Since 1986, only five teams have finished with one or no MVC losses.)

The Illinois State loss isn't the end of the world. Sycamore history backs up that statement.

Veteran ISU backers should recall the Sycamore teams that reached the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001 under late coach Royce Waltman. The 2000-01 team's circumstances are worth review now.

That team featured ISU Athletics Hall of Famers Michael Menser and Matt Renn, as well as rugged Djibril Kante, cool-handed guard Kelyn Block, unflappable post man Brian Giesen and other key players. Pretty good memories, right?

Well, the reality is, that team was basically written off after the events of Feb. 26, 2001. It was Senior Night for the Sycamores, and Southern Illinois came to Hulman Center with modest records of 16-12 overall and 9-8 in the Missouri Valley.

Instead of a festive victory to toast the careers of Menser, Renn and the other seniors, Southern Illinois stung the Sycamores 61-59 on a wild last-second play. With 1.6 seconds left, the Salukis' Abel Schrader heaved a 75-foot inbound pass to center Jermaine Dearman, who sank a six-foot jumper as the final horn sounded.

Happy Senior Night.

Not only that, the loss was ISU's sixth in its last eight regular-season games.

We all remember what happened next, though, right? The Sycamores entered the MVC Tournament with low expectations and a humble fifth-seeding, and wound up beating those same Salukis, powerhouse Creighton and stout Bradley to win the tournament title and earn an automatic Big Dance berth. Once in the NCAA Tournament, Waltman's team bounced fourth-seeded Oklahoma from the field with a 70-68 overtime victory, featuring Block's heroic return from the locker-room in OT after getting his teeth knocked out.

So, who knows what the remainder of this wild 2023-24 ISU season holds? It'll be fun, regardless. And, it ain't over yet.

People will overreact to wins. They'll overreact to losses.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.