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Sycamore men take on nemesis Missouri State in home MVC clash

Jan. 15—Indiana State fans' attention may be split between the Sycamores' on-court exploits and the scores of the rival Drake Bulldogs for at least the near future of the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball season.

The teams are, again, alone atop the MVC standings with identical records and 14 games to go in the regular season.

ISU and Drake first dueled in frozen Des Moines last Wednesday, and the Bulldogs prevailed 89-78 with a second-half offensive explosion. They meet again Feb. 3 in Hulman Center.

The Sycamores rebounded from that loss resoundingly, overwhelming Belmont by a 94-64 margin Saturday in Hulman Center. "I think our guys were upset with themselves coming out of Drake. Not that there was any shame in losing to Drake; that's a really good team, but we were upset with ourselves for the lack of discipline and the lack of toughness," ISU coach Josh Schertz said Monday afternoon, moments before his Sycamores practiced in Hulman Center.

"Our response, I thought, was terrific," he added. "We had one of our best practices of the year on Friday, and then played, I think, our best game of the year on Saturday. Now, the opposite — everybody wants to respond to failures, but how do you respond to success? That's going to be this team's challenge."

They're about to find out.

Schertz and his players (14-3 overall, 5-1 in the MVC) face an opponent that has essentially owned ISU in recent years, Missouri State. ISU plays the Bears at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Hulman Center.

Coach Dana Ford's squad holds records of 10-7 overall and 2-4 in the MVC, and opened its conference schedule with four straight conference losses before winning 74-64 at Evansville on Saturday. The Bears' other MVC win also came over Evansville in Springfield on Dec. 29.

But Missouri State has a way of blowing up trends and statistical probabilities, when it comes to playing ISU. The Bears have won 14 of the last 16 meetings with Indiana State, including 9 of 11 during Ford's six seasons as coach and 3 of 4 meetings in Schertz's three ISU seasons. Missouri State swept two close MVC games with ISU last season.

"You're looking at a team that basically has almost the entire team back from last year that swept us," Schertz said.

"The guys who really facilitated that have all returned" for the Bears, Schertz added.

That roster of veterans includes 6-foot-8, 230-pound fifth-year senior Donovan Clay, who has 84 points, 34 rebounds and 14 assists in eight games vs. ISU in his career. This season, Clay is averaging 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Missouri State's scoring is led by 6-2 guard Alston Mason with 17.2 points per game. Chance Moore, a 6-6 guard, averages 11.7 points a game, and Schertz called him "maybe the best athlete in the league."

"They're as talented as anybody in the league," Schertz said. "Now, it's not necessarily equated to where they want to be record-wise, but their best shot, which is what we expect [Tuesday] night is as good as anybody's best shot in the Missouri Valley."

ISU gave Belmont a powerful shot on Saturday. The Sycamores hit 55% of their field goals, 48% of their 3-point attempts and 12 of 13 free throws, outrebounded the Bruins 37-26 and scored 34 points from the lane. All five starters scored in double figures, led by guard Isaiah Swope's 24 points and 19 more by forward Jayson Kent. Sophomore center Robbie Avila grabbed 11 rebounds, and Xavier Bledson distributed six assists.

Ford called ISU "a fantastic offensive team" in Monday's weekly MVC coaches teleconference. "They shoot the ball well. They pass the ball well. [They're] extremely fast. So we'll have to be locked in defensively, have a high level of discipline, and we will need to play one of our better games of the season."

As a team, ISU is ranked 30th nationally in the NCAA NET Rankings. Missouri State, like the other MVC teams, knows it.

"You're going to get whatever their best focus [and] attention to detail is," Schertz said. "But like I told [the Sycamores], in life you've got to control the things you can control. And what we've got to control is putting our best foot forward, our best focus, our best attention to detail, making sure we don't come into the game not ready to go.

"Because, with everybody we play, whatever their best is, we're going to get," he said.

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