EAST LANSING, Mich. — Stan Gouard takes a pregame walk to clear his head. The University of Southern Indiana men’s basketball coach soaks in the views, particularly when he and his Screaming Eagles are on the road, mostly listening to smooth, lyric-less jazz with the occasional rap song thrown in.
What is and isn’t on his mind stays within his grip most days, though it’s hard to imagine he could shake the enormous task at hand as he meandered through East Lansing on Thursday before the game against No. 4 Michigan State.
Gouard has led USI to many heights. He won a Division II national title and his name is forever ingrained in the Eagles’ Hall of Fame as a player and with those teammates. Gouard coached USI in its first D-I year last season and led it to a respectable 16-17 finish.
Thursday, however, was different. This was against the Spartans; this was, for the first time in D-I, against a ranked opponent. Gouard could be forgiven if that occupied his mind through each music-filled step.
“This is going to be the landscape of college basketball for us as we continue to transition to Division I,” Gouard said pregame. The Eagles hope to play a couple of guarantee games, like Thursday’s with a $105,000 payout and as a 32-point underdog, each season. “I think the biggest thing right now with a quick turnaround is attention to details.”
The Eagles’ 74-51 loss to the Spartans, themselves coming off their first November home loss under coach Tom Izzo, is less about the result and the game but the progression of a program and an athletics department.
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A loss to that extent won’t happen in every game. But life on this level, as expected, is different. That was shown against Saint Louis and at Breslin Center.
“We gotta move the ball more and start getting our assists quicker,” USI guard Jordan Tillmon said. “I feel like, early on, we were just stuck a lot.”
Gouard said pregame that USI was like a Michigan State- or Duke-level program in Division II. It’s not like that anymore, and that’s OK. That’s life in Division I; that’s living on the highest level.
The lumps will come, particularly in games like this.
“We are a small fish in a big pond vs. the big fish in a small pond, so we have to adjust the way we do things,” Gouard said pregame. The four-year NCAA postseason ban makes the steps more difficult. “You’ll see a change in our recruiting and you’ll also see a change in us probably going in some of these games we’re competing in right now.”
USI’s second-half performance showed potential. The Eagles rattled a 10-0 run leading into the first media timeout and shot 45% after halftime — up from 14% in the first half. The better play forced Izzo into two timeouts to halt USI’s momentum after its play temporarily quieted the Izzone. Those are the required steps for a program in the Eagles’ position. Overall, the Eagles held MSU to 1-11 from the perimeter — “I wouldn’t bet that I’m gonna start those five (starters) on Tuesday,” Izzo said.
USI’s first half was offensively dire. The second showed bits of promise.
“It gives us an idea of the level we can play at and compete at,” Eagles forward Jack Mielke said. “That second half, if we play with that kind of energy, that kind of intensity against future opponents, that’s gonna reap tremendous benefits for us.”
USI won’t see a team of Michigan State’s caliber in the Ohio Valley Conference. The league doesn’t boast a venue like Breslin Center or players like AJ Hoggard, Tyson Walker or Coen Carr. This game was more about learning than it was about the check.
Those lessons of this new walk of life were worth the trip, every jazz-filled step of the way.
“I think the biggest lesson for me with our guys is you have to have amnesia,” Gouard said postgame. “You get about five hours to get this one out of the way. You get to class tomorrow, get to practice tomorrow and try to prepare.”
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Southern Indiana Eagles: USI take D1 lessons in loss to Michigan State