When Dan Muller spoke during Illinois State's Media Day back in October, the Redbird coach thought it might be until Christmas before everyone saw the real ISU squad.
Looks like he was about a month off.
There is no "I" in team. We've all heard that a million times. But three "I's" -- injuries, inexperience and immaturity -- have made this a roller coaster of a season for the Redbirds. But maybe, just maybe, ISU has at last figured out what it will take to be successful this season.
The Redbirds' 76-60 dismantling of preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorite Missouri State at JQH Arena, which sounded like a morgue, on Tuesday was the second straight game which ISU has played defense with its hair on fire.
There has been an intensity and passion on the defensive end, starting with last Saturday's 76-65 win over Valparaiso, which has been lacking this season.
ISU has always had two ingredients to be a good defensive team, length and quickness, but the "want to" has been there only occasionally. As recently as a week ago it was missing in action when Northern Iowa blew out the Redbirds.
Missouri State shot 32.3 percent from the field, the second lowest for a Redbird opponent this season (South Carolina shot 29.5 percent). The Bears couldn't get the ball to their star, Alize Johnson, in the second half as the ISU 2-3 zone was active and denying the 6-9 forward, with many NBA scouts watching, the chance to even touch the ball.
ISU isn't close to the defensive juggernaut it was last season. But compared to what the Redbirds have looked like most of this season, the players seem to be buying into what Muller and the coaching staff have been preaching.
Why did it take so long? Much of it is inexperience. Milik Yarbrough brought the most experience into this season, but that was two years at Saint Louis. This is the third year for Keyshawn Evans and David Ndiaye with ISU, but injuries really make this only the second year for both. Phil Fayne is in his second year with the Redbirds. Madison Williams saw some action last season as a freshman, but not much.
That's basically it.
It has taken this group longer than expected to figure out that defense really wins games. No team is going to be at its sharpest offensively every game, but if you dig in on defense, you have a chance to win every game.
The other pleasing thing about Tuesday's performance was the balanced offense. The Big 3 -- Yarbrough, Evans and Fayne -- have carried the load all season offensively. Their 49.3 combined scoring average would rank sixth all-time in MVC history.
Muller pointed out the Big 3 was hardly their best offensively Tuesday. Evans (15 points) missed some wide-open shots, going 5 of 15 from the field and 3 of 12 outside the arc. Yarbrough (15 points) was hesitant early pulling the trigger and was 4 of 13. Fayne (11 points), who was shooting an insane 68.4 percent in MVC games, missed several point-blank looks and was 4 of 10.
It didn't matter as five players finished in double figures for the first time this season. Freshman Taylor Bruninga was huge off the bench, especially in the first half when he scored 10 of his 13 points. Madison Williams stuck 4 of 7 3-point attempts and scored 12 points. David Ndiaye even added six points.
Muller said a week ago he was shortening the rotation. That meant Bruninga didn't play against Valpo. On Tuesday, freshman guard Elijah Clarance didn't get off the bench. Redshirt freshman Isaac Gassman has pleyed only 11 minutes in the last two games.
Bruninga showed you have to be ready anytime. Clarance will get his chance again sometime this season. He must be like Bruninga and be prepared when Muller calls his name.
With the next two games at home, Saturday vs. Evansville and Feb. 8 vs. Southern Illinois, ISU has a chance to sneak back into the league race if Loyola has a stumble or two. Stranger things have happened.
The key is not to get too high after any victory or too low after any loss. Seven MVC games remain before getting to St. Louis for the league tournament.
However, after watching ISU struggle to find any consistency this season, this is two straight games with a strong defensive effort. If the Redbirds keep this up, this season has a chance to be something special when most thought it was time to write it off.