What was learned Sunday night in Illinois State’s 68-67 loss to Wichita State at Redbird Arena?
A lot about flagrant fouls to be sure, but even more about the home team and what is possible in the coming weeks.
Yes, a kick to the chest turned into a punch in the gut for the Redbirds, who led by seven points before a chaotic final 40 seconds.
To their credit, from Coach Dan Muller on down, they pointed out afterward far more went wrong than the controversial flagrant foul call against 6-foot-9 senior Jackie Carmichael.
Even after Carmichael was cited for kicking Tekele Cotton on a rebound — a freakishly athletic play that Carmichael’s history would suggest was unintentional — ISU was in great position to win and couldn’t close the deal.
The Redbirds made mistakes. So did the officials. Wichita State, a team long on grit, made everything it shot.
What should not be lost in the emotion of the night is how far the Redbirds have come from their 0-6 Missouri Valley Conference start, and how close they are to being the best team in the league when it matters most.
In the past 10 days, ISU has won on second-place Creighton’s home floor and been within an eyelash of beating league leader Wichita State.
Strip away all else and you realize — or should, anyway — that those games say everything about where Muller’s team is with the Valley Tournament two weeks away.
ISU has three conference games left and four overall beginning with Wednesday night’s Valley contest at Evansville. There will be a lot of jockeying for seeds before Arch Madness begins in St. Louis on March 7.
No matter how it turns out, know this. No one in the league will be eager to play Illinois State.
The reason is two-fold.
One, ISU’s veterans — Carmichael, Tyler Brown, John Wilkins, Bryant Allen, Jon Ekey — knocked off Wichita State in the semifinals and took Creighton to overtime in the Valley Tournament title game last year. None of them will blink walking into Scottrade Center.
No way to assign a point value to that, but experience means something.
Two, and most telling, the Redbirds are playing defense again. It was a big part of their 9-3 nonconference season and sorely missing in the 0-6 Valley start.
ISU gave up 73.7 points per game during the losing streak. The Redbirds have allowed 65.6 since, going 7-2.
The best defensive stretch came in the first half Sunday, holding Wichita State to 20 points and 31 percent shooting. The worst was Jan. 29 in the second half at Bradley. An eight-point halftime lead melted into an 83-77 loss, with the Braves outscoring ISU 55-41 in the second half.
If you take away that and the waning seconds Sunday night, the Redbirds have a nine-game win streak.
Muller would tell you there is no room for “ifs” in college basketball, a bottom-line business.
Yet, there is no denying this team is a lot closer to the one that lost 69-66 at then-No. 5 Louisville on Dec. 1 than the bunch that went 28 days between wins (Dec. 22 to Jan. 20).
Keep it up and ISU heads to St. Louis a legitimate title contender, which is what we expected all along.
That much was clear Sunday night, even with the murky final minute.