NORMAL — Jackie Carmichael admits he didn’t quite get it last year. The 6-foot-9 Illinois State forward wasn’t prepared as a freshman for the increased intensity level when Missouri Valley Conference games began.
“I really don’t know how to explain it,” said Carmichael. “I guess you have to go through that first one and see how it is. They couldn’t really prepare you for what conference play is all about. You have to more or less experience it and get the feel of it after a couple games.”
ISU’s young players will get a crash course of Valley fever with five games in the next 12 days, beginning with today’s 7:05 p.m. league opener against Creighton at Redbird Arena.
Both teams come in with high hopes after ending the nonconference portion of the schedule.
Creighton (8-4) won its last four games and welcomed 6-foot-9, 270-pound Gregory Echenique, a transfer from Rutgers who became eligible on Dec. 18 and has played in the last three games.
ISU (8-3) has incorporated 6-9 sophomore John Wilkins and 6-7 redshirt freshman Jon Ekey into the starting lineup. Ekey exploded for 22 points and 12 rebounds as the Redbirds tuned up for Valley play by winning their first road game, a 62-60 overtime victory at North Carolina Wilmington on Dec. 20.
“We’re the longest and most athletic around the basket at three positions since we’ve been here with a chance to alter or block shots,” said fourth-year Redbird coach Tim Jankovich.
Today’s game will mark the Valley return of Creighton coach Greg McDermott. He guided Northern Iowa to three straight NCAA Tournament berths from 2004-06 before leaving for Iowa State.
McDermott jumped at the chance to get back in the league when Creighton coach Dana Altman left for Oregon in April.
“There are only two coaches in the league when I was here, Jim Les (at Bradley) and Chris Lowery (at Southern Illinois),” said McDermott. “It’s amazing there’s been that much turnover in such a short period of time.”
McDermott said his transition back into the Valley will be easier because of assistants Darian DeVries and Steve Merfeld. DeVries was on Altman’s staff for 12 years, while Merfeld has been in the league the last seven years as a Bradley assistant (2007-09) and Evansville’s head coach (2002-07).
An added bonus for the Bluejays was that Doug McDermott, Greg’s son, decided to join his father and was let out of a national letter of intent he signed with UNI. The younger McDermott, a 6-7 forward, is second on the team with a 12.6 scoring average while grabbing 6.3 rebounds and shooting 50 percent from the field.
“From a parental standpoint it couldn’t get any better for a dad to experience this,” said Greg McDermott of coaching his son. “Certainly there has been some trying times trying to draw that line between dad and coach and player and son. But we’ve both adjusted to it well.”
How the Bluejays adjust to having Echenique and Kenny Lawson Jr., the Valley Preseason Player of the Year, in their front line could determine their Valley fate. Echenique is a space eater who can draw double teams offensively and is a force defensively, blocking 94 shots in 39 games at Rutgers in the Big East Conference. He is averaging 11.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in three games.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge. We’re up to the challenge, though,” said Carmichael. “We’re not going to shy away from it. We’ve had good success against them in the past and will try to continue that with a younger team and not as much experience.”
ISU has beaten Creighton seven of the last eight meetings, including 6-1 under Jankovich.
Creighton vs. Illinois State
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Site: Redbird Arena, Normal
Radio: WJBC (AM-1230, FM-93.7)
Records: Creighton 8-4; Illinois State 8-3
Series history/last meeting: ISU leads, 40-24 (ISU won 67-63 on Feb. 13, 2010)
About the Bluejays: Creighton was picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference in a preseason poll of league coaches, media and sports information directors. The Bluejays are 0-2 in true road games, losing at Northwestern and Nebraska, and have not won away from the Qwest Center in Omaha. … Antoine Young is enjoying a breakout season. He leads the Missouri Valley Conference in minutes played (35.7 per game) and assists (4.3) while ranking sixth in scoring (13.4 ppg). ... Kenny Lawson Jr., the Valley Preseason Player of the Year, is the active league leader in rebounds (631), blocked shots (141) and games started (100).
Next: Jan. 1 at Missouri State, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: Illinois State 65, Creighton 63
(Scoring, rebounding averages)
F — Doug McDermott, 6-7, Fr. (12.6, 6.3); C — Kenny Lawson Jr., 6-9, Sr. (11.7, 7.0); G — Darryl Ashford, 6-4, Sr. (7.3, 4.3); Antoine Young, 6-0, Jr. (13.4, 3.2); Kaleb Korver, 6-5, Sr. (4.9, 3.4).
F — John Wilkins, 6-9, So. (8.2, 5.5); Jon Ekey, 6-7, Fr. (4.8, 3.9); Jackie Carmichael, 6-9, So. (10.5, 4.5); G — Alex Rubin, 6-1, Sr. (5.4, 2.3); Justin Clark, 6-4, So. (4.1, 3.0).