SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Staying here last year on New Year’s Eve, Illinois State’s basketball team found no escaping the First Night Springfield midnight fireworks display from their hotel.
Maybe watching the sky light up for the second straight year will inspire the Redbirds’ sagging shooting fortunes.
It couldn’t hurt.
ISU senior Austin Hill insists he is not worried about the Redbirds’ month-long shooting slump heading into Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. game against surging Missouri State at JQH Arena.
“You can’t get down on yourself and lose your faith. Once you lose your faith, there goes the season,” said Hill, who leads ISU with a 10.7-point average. “We have to keep pushing. That’s all we can do.”
The Redbirds (8-4) shot 35.8 percent from the field in a 64-53 loss to Creighton on Wednesday in the Missouri Valley Conference opener. ISU hasn’t topped the 46-percent mark in its last eight games while averaging a meager 58.1 points and is shooting 29 percent from 3-point range on the season.
“The unique thing about our team is we have 10 guys who have had double-figure (scoring) nights and really played well offensively,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “But to be a good team in a conference like ours you have to have four or five every night. We just haven’t managed to put that together.”
There might not be a worse time to play Missouri State, which has hopes of winning its first Valley title since joining the league in 1990.
The Bears (9-3) are coming off an emotional 58-57 victory at Northern Iowa three days ago thanks to Kyle Weems’ 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left. That snapped their 11-game road losing streak and broke UNI’s 21-game homecourt winning streak.
“For us it’s a big win for our program,” said Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin after the game.
Missouri State is a veteran team that starts four seniors and a fourth-year junior in the 6-foot-6 Weems, who figures to be in the running for Valley Player of the Year honors. The Bears have won 15 straight at JQH Arena, which isn’t good news for ISU in its Valley road debut for several players.
Weems had four straight 20-point plus games before being held to 12 at UNI. But, he made up for that by hitting the biggest shot of his career. The Redbirds probably will start with 6-9 sophomore John Wilkins guarding Weems.
“It’s always hard because he’s a great shooter and now he’s turned into a great player,” said Jankovich. “He has great feel. He’s a scorer now and has a lot of savvy. He’s really a tough matchup for everybody.”
Jankovich said he might tweak the ISU lineup in an effort to get more scoring punch, but added “to make major changes would be crazy.”
“There’s no question if anything they’re trying too hard and want it too badly,” he said. “That’s not an easy thing to fix that mentality. I don’t fault anyone for that. That’s why I always go back to only control what you can control — and that’s effort, attitude, attention to detail, commitment to defense, rebounding and blocking out.”
Unless the offense picks up, the Redbirds realistically could be staring at a 0-6 start in the Valley.
ISU has road games at Indiana State (Tuesday) and Southern Illinois (Jan. 9) along with home games against league favorite Wichita State (Friday) and two-time defending champion UNI (Jan. 12) in the next two weeks.
“I think we’ll be all right. We need to just keep working at it. It’s a long season,” said Hill. “Guys are not hitting shots right now, but eventually they’re going to fall. We’ve got some good shooters on the team. Eventually it’s going to come around.”
ISU at Missouri State
Time: 7:05 p.m. Saturday
Broadcast: WJBC (1230 AM, 93.7 FM)