Todd Golden: DOWN IN THE VALLEY: Five takeaways from ISU's defeat at Ball State

Nov. 28—That was rough.

Indiana State's 97-75 loss at Ball State was the first one this season where there's no easy excuse for the performance.

Purdue and Oklahoma? Power Five schools a team picked ninth in the Missouri Valley Conference isn't supposed to beat? New Mexico State? Much deeper team and the Sycamores were knackered after playing short-handed for three straight games.

This one isn't as easily explained. Ball State hadn't been playing wonderfully entering the contest, but they got their act together with a vengeance on its home floor. ISU just wilted in every sense.

Is it worrying? Well, it's the one true egg ISU has laid out of seven games, so it's not as if this has been the team's pattern, but it's naive to be dismissive about it too. What I saw were some players being way too casual, both with shot selection and with passing. I also saw timidity once a few whistles didn't go ISU's way. Defense was a rumor.

ISU has played well, for the most part, in its games this season, but certainly not well enough to justify the kind over-confident-ish types of plays seen on Saturday. ISU looked connected in early games. They looked far from it on Saturday.

1. Defense and offense were equally poor — Josh Schertz bemoaned ISU's defensive effort and it's hard to argue with him. Ball State's numbers were embarrassing.

The Cardinals shot 31 of 57, but were 65.4% in the second half. In fact, Ball State started nearly as poorly as ISU did from the field, but once the Cardinals straightened themselves out? They made 28 of their last 48 shots.

Schertz pointed out that the Sycamores scored 75 and that's usually enough to at least keep a team in most games. However, it's not the total, but when those points were scored.

I'm convinced this was a classic case of bad offense creating bad defense. ISU started 1 of 11 from the field. They also got into early foul trouble, including three fouls on Ball State's first possession.

The Sycamores lost their mojo straight away and never found it. So while ISU rolled up 49 points in the second half when defense by both teams was akin to that of a NBA All-Star Game, the meaningful time to score points was in the first half and the fact that ISU didn't score led to the other problems that kept the game a blowout in the second half.

2. Finishing at the rim was brutal, but 3-point shooting remains the systemic problem — I'm not sure I've seen finishing at the rim quite as poor as ISU's was in the first half. These weren't misses that swirled out of the cylinder or got unkind bounces.

Many of ISU's misses weren't close. Shots flying into the side of the backboard or being thrown over the rim on reverse layups. This was rec league type stuff. At one point, I thought I accidentally showed up for the managers game. (Sorry managers.)

It was clear that the guilty parties were trying to force the issue at the rim. So why is that?

ISU's offense operates on a simple principle: get the highest percentage shots, or, get the shots that have the highest leverage. The highest percentage shot is a layup (usually), so that's where the emphasis on cuts and drives is rooted.

Spreading four or five out creates the space for those cuts, but also, puts shooters in positions to take and make 3-point shots, a bigger reward than a 2-point mid-range shot, which has a similar rate of success.

Anyway, the 3-point shot has to be there as a threat to keep defenses honest. Once they spread out to account for shooters, it opens up passing and cutting lanes.

The problem for ISU is that it's not consistently making 3-point shots. On Saturday, ISU was 9 of 25. Not terrible, but not enough to shake opponents of what they're doing to stop ISU's cutting action ... packing the lane to stop the easier back-door layups, etc.

ISU is only shooting 32.7% from 3-point range this season. Until shots start to fall with more consistency, the Sycamores won't be able to unlock defenses and won't be able to unclog the middle for better shots near the bucket.

3. Bledson's return was welcome — Xavier Bledson didn't start, but his presence was quickly felt. He scored 15 points, had seven assists, and drew nine of 19 fouls ISU drew overall.

He wasn't his usual "Schertz Whisperer", despite the seven assists, he wasn't quite as talismanic as he had been, but he was at least active and trying to make things happen. He was the only Sycamore I'd describe as aggressive.

Maybe too aggressive on one occasion when he picked up a technical foul. That habit for yapping needs to be snuffed out, but I like everything else Bledson brings to the table.

4. Neese out of rhythm — For the most part, Cooper Neese has been decent this season, but he's not seen his shot fall in the last three games. From 3-point range, Neese was 1-for-5 against Oklahoma, 3-for-12 against New Mexico State, and at Ball State, Neese was 0-for-6.

When Neese begins to press is when I begin to worry. Neese's strength is as a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter, not necessarily as a spot-up shooter. He reminds me of Sundance in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. He often shoots best when he's in motion.

Neese, though, will sometimes try to work out of slump by doing the opposite. He also still has the habit of drawing a defender, faking him, and then taking a set shot. It seems those shots almost never fall.

Neese can't overthink. His teammates need to get him the kind of looks he thrives making, catch-and-shoot looks, often in transition.

5. Crawford deserves a chance — Cam Crawford played 14 minutes and played without fear. He buried his only two 3-point attempts, and though the game was out of hand for most of the time he was in the contest, he at least brought some energy, and something else in short supply on Saturday — confidence.

Schertz worries about his defense, and rightfully so, but Crawford probably deserves a few more minutes. He's a good energy source and with ISU's primary players playing heavy minutes, he can help for a stretch or two. Sometimes, the Sycamores need that jolt, questionable defense or not.

—ISU Player(s) of the Game — Um? Do I have to? I suppose Micah Thomas, who kept his motor running despite foul trouble. He scored 19 points and had four rebounds.

—Opposing Player(s) of the Game — I liked Ball State's freshman center Payton Sparks. The Winchester native was influential in the paint with 12 points. He got Dearon Tucker into early foul trouble and ISU's interior defense never recovered.

However, it's hard to ignore Miryne Thomas's contribution. He had 13 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and was 3 of 6 from the field.

—Random — Not really random, necessarily, but while the Sycamores were lousy, at least one can enjoy the success of a former Sycamore — Khristian Smith.

Smith played at ISU from 2012-16 and worked in several roles on Greg Lansing's support staff in the years after. Smith spent a couple of seasons with Chris Beard at Texas Tech before coming back home to Indiana to join James Whitford's staff at Ball State starting this season.

Smith loves Indiana State, but as he always has, he takes to whatever he's doing with maximum enthusiasm and focus. So it was as he had scouting responsibilities against his alma mater.

While ISU's loss was sobering, I am happy for Smith, who continues to have coaching success. I spoke with him before the game and he's doing well. He teased me a bit about my Ball State roots, which was fun.