NORMAL — Traveling to Wednesday’s game might be the easy part for Illinois State’s basketball team in the next 16 days.
The Redbirds were forced to leave early on a charter bus Tuesday morning bound for Cedar Falls, Iowa, to beat the blizzard descending on Central Illinois. ISU puts a three-game winning streak on the line at 7:05 p.m. against an even-hotter team, Northern Iowa, in a Missouri Valley Conference game at the McLeod Center.
The next five games for ISU (11-11, 3-8) are against the Valley’s top five teams, including Saturday at Wichita State. All have beaten the Redbirds the first time around. The only one of those games that was not a double-digit ISU loss was a 46-44 setback to UNI on Jan. 12.
“I never ever look ahead. I don’t like to because it brings on a lot of added stress,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “Hopefully, we are more confident. If you can have one ingredient in an athlete, I’ll take confidence first over anything else. That’s not to say ours is running off the charts, but it’s higher than three weeks ago.”
ISU probably couldn’t pick a worse time to play UNI (17-6, 8-3). The two-time defending Valley champion has won seven straight games. The Panthers are a game behind co-leaders Missouri State and Wichita State.
It took ISU about five hours Tuesday to reach Cedar Falls.
“It would be a good excuse, but I think that would be very weak-minded,” said Jankovich about the change in travel arrangements. “I’ve heard stories about teams having a horrific travel day and just playing out of their minds. It can work either way.”
The Redbirds have scored more than 70 points in each of their last two games, although they needed overtime in both contests to do so. Still, it was the first time ISU has accomplished that feat since the first two games of the season.
Fueling the offensive surge have been Jackie Carmichael and Austin Hill.
Carmichael, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds in last week’s two games while earning Valley Player of the Week honors.
“He’s starting to look like the athlete (we thought) and play with that passion that he needs,” said Jankovich. “We all know he’s not at the stage in his career that he does it every night. That’s the growth he still has to make. But when he does, he does an awful lot of good things.”
Hill, a senior guard, has scored in double figures in four straight games for the first time in his two-year ISU career.
While UNI is known first and foremost for its stingy defense, the Panthers also have picked up their offensive output. UNI has scored 69 or more points in five games during its winning streak.
Leading the Panther charge has been Kwadzo Ahelegbe, who is emerging as a leading candidate for Valley Player of the Year. The senior point guard is averaging 16.3 points while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 47.6 percent on 3-pointers in the last seven games.
“He really has found a rhythm in all areas, not just the offensive area,” said UNI coach Ben Jacobson of Ahelegbe. “He has elevated his leadership, play, determination and competitiveness. That has made a big difference.”
ISU has never won at the McLeod Center since the building opened for the 2006-07 season. The Redbirds’ last win in Cedar Falls came on Jan. 28, 2004 when ISU beat the Panthers, 68-60, at the UNI-Dome.
Time set for Western Michigan: ISU’s game against Western Michigan on Feb. 19 for the BracketBusters will start at 1 p.m. (CST) in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Illinois State vs. Northern Iowa
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Site: McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Radio: WJBC (AM-1230, FM-93.7)
Records: ISU 11-11, 3-8 MVC; UNI 17-6, 8-3
Series history/last meeting: ISU leads, 34-24 (UNI won 46-44 on Jan. 12, 2011)
About the Panthers: UNI has won at least seven straight Missouri Valley Conference games for the third straight year, the first time to do so since Southern Illinois did it five seasons in a row from 2003-07. UNI had an 11-game streak in 2009 and a seven-game streak last season. … UNI ranks No. 2 in the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 10.1 and No. 8 in scoring defense at 57.7 points. … The Panthers lead the Missouri Valley Conference in free throw percentage (.746) and turnover margin (plus 2.8), but are last in 3-point percentage defense (.361) and eighth in 3-point percentage (.328).
Next: Saturday at Wichita State, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: UNI 68, Illinois State 58
(Scoring, rebounding averages)
F — John Wilkins, 6-9, So. (8.8, 4.4); Jon Ekey, 6-7, Fr. (4.7, 4.2); C — Blake Mishler, 6-8, Sr. (5.1, 2.4); G — Austin Hill, 6-1, Sr. (9.9, 2.4); Anthony Cousin, 5-11, So. (7.0, 1.4)
F — Jake Koch, 6-9, So. (10.0, 4.8); Lucas O’Rear, 6-6, Sr. (7.0, 5.7); G — Kwadzo Ahelegbe, 6-2, Sr. (13.3, 2.8); Johnny Moran, 6-1, Jr. (9.3, 3.2); Anthony James, 6-0, So. (11.9, 2.7)