As we approach college hoops season this year, the craving seems even more prevalent. The Missouri Valley was one of the few leagues that got to complete the tournament and crown a champion. The league has many of the usual suspects back. The rosters at the top of this league are good enough to put together a resume warranting at-large consideration. The rosters in the middle of this league have a chance to put together strong enough non-conference resumes to provide quality wins for those top tier teams this season. Northern Iowa and Loyola bring back tons of talent and combined for all but 1 pre-season first place vote. There’s plenty of reason for optimism in Terre Haute as well. The Sycamores were picked 4th in the league, but there’s enough talent in town for this team to put it together and punch a ticket to the dance. Here’s how:
1. Top of the League Type Talent
This seems obvious, but all great mid-major teams are led by great players. Not just good players, but players that rise to the top of their league. Historically Mid-Major squads that are memorable have that guy that walks on the floor any given night and has the ability to be the best player out there. The Sycamores have two of those players. Everyone knows Tyreke Key. Assuming a healthy season, Key will wrap up his career all over the Indiana State record books. He’s a quiet assassin on the floor, rarely showing emotion but taking over games regularly. Key is lethal from 3, and his first step looks even quicker in practice this year. He lives in the gym. Key led the Sycamores to the first winning season of his career as a junior, and he’ll be a huge scouting report focus as a senior as well, but not the only focus. After coming on during the second half of his debut season, Jake LaRavia looks like an absolute monster coming into the season. He looks healthy, he looks stronger, he looks like he’s grown, and the jumper has smoothed out. After making the All-Newcomer team last year as a freshman, LaRavia looks like a legitimate candidate to make strides to an All-League type talent in his second season. Finally, let’s not forget Tre Williams. With the hype surrounding LaRavia’s finish to the season, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it was Williams who got the start in every game last season. He’s as steady as they come on both the offensive and defensive ends. His shooting stroke is too good to shoot under 50% from the free throw line again. I look for Williams to be a consistent force in the paint this season, and the third Sycamore averaging double figures per night.
2. Julian Larry
All you have to do is wait until these Sycamores get to the part of practice where they are allowed to remove their masks to see how much Julian Larry loves to play. His enthusiastic grin is continuous as he flies up and down the floor. With the departure of Jordan Barnes, this position was a question mark for me until I was able to see Larry. It’s hard to have this much confidence in a young man who’s never played a minute of college basketball, but his game looks picture perfect to go with the other pieces on this roster. With tons of scoring talent around him, Larry seems to be legitimately unconcerned with getting himself in the scoring column. He should be among the league leaders in assists and looks to provide this team with the on the ball stopper they need on the perimeter. He’s already one of the most vocal Sycamores on the floor. The knock on Larry coming into college was his jump shot. He goes to the gym to get shots up at 7am each morning and has already made himself a threat to keep defenses honest from deep. To become March memorable, you need a great floor general. This team has one in freshman Julian Larry.
The news that Kailex Stephens will miss the season with a torn Achilles deals the squad a serious blow. I was there to witness this in practice, and the way the team responded and rallied around him was inspiring. Stephens had the ability to cover tons of positions off the bench, and give this team front court depth that they haven’t had in a long time. Without him, though, there are still plenty of combinations for Coach Lansing and company to deploy on any given night. The new key to Sycamore depth is Cobie Barnes. Without Stephens, Barnes will be used almost exclusively at the 4. If you remember back to what seems like an eternity ago, it was actually Barnes who was thought of as the crown jewel of this sophomore class. Barnes looks stronger, a step quicker, and he’s shooting the lights out this preseason. The stable runs even deeper at the guard position. I see about 60 minutes up from grabs on the perimeter. There are 40 minutes at the 3 that won’t have Barnes in the mix since he’ll be needed up front. Also, giving Key and Larry a blow, especially early in the season will be interesting. Randy Miller Jr. looks to be the leader in the clubhouse for minutes at the 3. Cooper Neese returns, and grad transfer T.J. Howard can play both the point and off the ball. Cam Bacote looks able to provide steady play at the point as well. These minutes will be earned, but there are certainly options to provide motivation to keep the pedal down and make for spirited competition in practice.
It feels odd titling one of these sections boasting the experience of this team that I fully expect to start two sophomores and a freshman, but a deeper look reveals more. Tyreke Key is more experienced than your average senior. He’s averaged nearly 32 minutes per game over the course of his career. The sophomores projected to start aren’t typical sophomores. Tre Williams, of course, started every game as a freshman. LaRavia started 25 of 30 and his minutes trended way up as the year wore on and he learned more and more how to stay out of foul trouble. The trio of Cooper Neese, Randy Miller Jr., and T. J. Howard have combined to start 82 games at the college level, albeit only Neese has heard his name called at the Hulman Center.
5. Roster Construction
This roster feels to me like it was built to complement each other more than any since the last time Indiana State punched a ticket to the Big Dance. This team has had talented players over the last 10 years, many of whom have left a great individual mark, but only that team from 2010-2011 knows elation of winning a championship. Great players don’t always blend in the right way to make great teams. This team feels different. Losing Stephens is a blow, but the depth makes it feel less devastating as it would have in years past. The 2020-2021 Sycamores are led by Key, who has quietly gone about his business to put together one of the best careers in school history. This year Key’s soft spoken nature will be complemented by a co-star who boasts a personality that is very much the opposite. Jake LaRavia’s brash nature gives him an edge that is gravitating. His non-stop motor shows through his ability on the offensive boards. Tre Williams and Julian Larry lock in defensively and are both visibly enjoying every minute they’re on the court. They communicate on the defensive end and could end up very good at getting guys in position defensively. Randy Miller Jr. is such an interesting X-Factor. He’s the only player on this team that has played in an NCAA tournament. He’s a tough natured, athletic wing that can get to the rim and knock down open jumpers. Miller can absolutely take over a game if you’re paying too much attention to Key and LaRavia. He’s proven that with a career high of 29 points for North Carolina Central. Neese and Howard can also be lethal with career highs in the upper 20’s as well. (Neese 25, Howard 26)
Firepower won’t be a problem. If this team can stay healthy enough in the post to overcome the injury to Stephens, and buys in on the defensive end night in and night out, look out. The non-conference schedule should provide plenty of looks at teams that will be very competitive in their league, and some teams that should play in the NCAA tournament. It’s shaping up to be a loaded year in the Valley and Indiana State should be right in the mix at the top of the league.