KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Justin Clark has decided to let ’er fly.
“I’ve always had confidence. It’s not that I’ve lost my confidence,” said Illinois State’s sophomore guard. “I haven’t been shooting a lot. I’m going back to my old ways of shooting the ball. That’s all I used to do.”
Clark broke out of a severe shooting slump by making 5 of 8 field goal attempts, including both 3-point tries, in a loss at Creighton on Wednesday. He’ll try to do the same Saturday when the Redbirds (11-16) attempt to snap a five-game losing streak against Western Michigan (14-10) in a 1 p.m. BracketBusters game at University Arena.
For a team searching for any kind of offensive jolt, ISU coach Tim Jankovich said Clark’s performance “was great to see.”
Outside of one game last year and one earlier this season, Clark hasn’t been near the player who scored more than 2,000 points at Chrisman High School in Independence, Mo., and ranks second in Missouri prep history for career 3-pointers.
“He’s really a good player in a lot of ways. It’s just that he hasn’t found his stride on the offensive end in scoring,” said Jankovich. “He really understands the game, plays hard and has a good basketball IQ.”
Clark came into Wednesday’s game shooting 31 percent from the field (22 of 71) and 20 percent on 3-pointers (9 of 45). He started the first seven games, but has come off the bench in all but two others while being held out of two games (one because of the flu).
In 12 games, Clark has taken two or fewer shots while sometimes playing 20-plus minutes.
“My family back home has been telling me to just play basketball. My teammates know what I’m capable of,” said Clark. “I might not have big support outside of the team and my family, but I’m just going to go out and play basketball.”
If Clark can get his shot to fall, it couldn’t come at a better time. Guard Austin Hill has set career highs the last two games with 23 and 27 points, respectively, but ISU still hasn’t been able to top 60 points in its last five games.
Jackie Carmichael’s return could help Saturday. The Redbirds’ second-leading scorer sat out against Creighton because of flu-like symptoms. Carmichael made the trip and is expected to play.
Maybe getting out of the Valley for a day will be good for the Redbirds. ISU went 8-3 in the nonconference portion of the schedule, with its last trip a 62-60 victory at North Carolina Wilmington on Dec. 20.
ISU meets a team going in the opposite direction. Western Michigan has won four of its last five games to take a half-game lead over Ball State in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division.
Western Michigan was 11-9 when the BracketBusters schedule was announced on Jan. 31.
“When we’re able to shoot the ball well, the game certainly gets a lot easier,” said Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins.
However, Western Michigan could be without starting power forward Flenard Whitfield, who sprained an ankle during Tuesday’s 77-65 victory at Northern Illinois. Hawkins said Whitfield is questionable for Saturday.
Many Valley coaches this week questioned whether the BracketBusters, which is in its ninth year, is still viable. Hawkins said it no longer is really an NCAA Tournament bracket buster because there are 114 teams involved, but still endorses the idea.
“So many of us in the MAC really struggle to schedule,” he said. “The biggest reason for us in the MAC is we’re Division I in football. There’s just not much money to buy (home) games here. To get a home-and-home series is not easy to do.”
Western Michigan will return the game to ISU either next season or the 2012-13 season. Central Catholic High School guard Hayden Hoerdemann, who signed in November, will be on the Broncos’ roster then.
Illinois State vs. Western Michigan
Time: 1 p.m. Saturday
Site: University Arena, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Radio: WJBC (AM-1230, FM-93.7)
Records: Illinois State 11-16; Western Michigan 14-10
Series history/last meeting: Western Michigan leads, 4-2 (Western Michigan won, 65-57, on Dec. 16, 2006)
About the Broncos: Western Michigan, which leads the Mid-American Conference West Division by a half-game, ranks third in the league in scoring at 71.7 points per game, but is 10th in scoring defense at 69.9. … The Broncos are 8-3 at home with losses to Loyola, Illinois and Buffalo. … Demetrius Ward has scored in double figures in nine straight games. Ward made 35 straight free throws until he missed on Tuesday. … The Broncos’ top reserve is 6-6 freshman Juwan Howard Jr., who is the son of former Michigan star and current Miami Heat player Juwan Howard. The younger Howard is averaging 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds. He blocked six shots against Ohio. … Backup center Muhammed Conteh has missed the last two games with a torn calf muscle and is questionable today.
Next: Tuesday vs. Bradley, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: Western Michigan 75, Illinois State 65
(Scoring, rebounding averages)
F — Tony Lewis, 6-7, Sr. (7.0, 6.4); Jon Ekey, 6-7, Fr. (4.5, 4.2); C — Blake Mishler, 6-8, Sr. (4.7, 2.4); G — Anthony Cousin, 5-11, So. (7.0, 1.3); Austin Hill, 6-1, Sr. (10.5, 2.5).
F — Nate Hutcheson, 6-7, So. (7.5, 4.9); Flenard Whitfield, 6-7, Jr. (13.1, 6.3); C — Matt Stainbrook, 6-9, Fr. (8.5, 5.8); G — Demetrius Ward, 6-3, Jr. (4.4, 1.7); Mike Douglas, 6-0, Jr. (8.2, 3.5).