NORMAL — The future may have arrived for Illinois State’s basketball team.
If so, it’s not a game too soon.
It did seem apparent Monday when the Redbirds started 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Jon Ekey and 6-9 sophomore John Wilkins together for the first time against North Carolina Wilmington. Ekey and Wilkins showed they will be difficult to take out of the lineup after leading ISU to a 62-60 overtime victory over the Seahawks on the road.
Ekey, in only his second game since switching to small forward, broke loose for 22 points and 12 rebounds. Wilkins made his first start and added 13 points and eight rebounds.
“I have a lot more good feelings playing with Jon,” said Wilkins. “We play well together and see each other on the court.”
ISU (8-3) will take a couple days off before reconvening Christmas night to get ready for the Dec. 29 Missouri Valley Conference opener against Creighton at Redbird Arena.
When Wilkins became eligible on Nov. 28 after sitting out a five-game NCAA suspension, Ekey’s minutes at power forward dwindled. He played only three minutes on Dec. 8 against Ohio before ISU coach Tim Jankovich decided to switch Ekey to a wing position.
“It was very apparent last week that Jon’s confidence has increased exponentially,” said Jankovich. “He moved positions, and he’s settled in that far better than I hoped.”
Jankovich gave Ekey the ultimate compliment for an ISU player.
“He’s a coach’s dream, much like Dinma Odiakosa last year, where he takes every word you say and tries to apply it,” said Jankovich. “His intensity is as high on Tuesday as Friday. That’s why he’s a really good player and a heck of an athlete and skillful young man.”
Ekey, who started the first four games of the season, said the transition from power forward isn’t as difficult as it might be for other players. He basically played on the wing in high school in Independence, Mo., and shot a lot of 3-pointers.
On a team in desperate need of perimeter shooting, Ekey and Wilkins delivered. Ekey sank 4-of-8 attempts outside the arc, while Wilkins was 3-of-5.
UNCW probably wasn’t expecting Ekey’s onslaught. His previous high-scoring game was seven points.
“I’m sure I might have been a side note (on the scouting report), that he’s lanky or something,” said the 215-pound Ekey, who played 37 minutes. “Hopefully, I caught them off guard.”
The ISU coaches knew that Wilkins, playing in only his sixth game, was capable of spreading the court with his long-range shooting. A pleasant surprise, thus far, is that Wilkins has not been overmatched defending power forwards.
“I’m still discovering myself as a player and defender,” he said. “I still make mistakes, but in practice we’ll take that up and try to get ready for conference games.”
Ironically, ISU used a road victory at Utah before Christmas last season to gain confidence heading into Valley play en route to a third-place league finish. But that team had veterans such as Odiakosa, Osiris Eldridge and Lloyd Phillips.
This was the first road victory of any kind for six Redbird players in uniform.
“I don’t like to rank games in terms of importance, but I thought it was one of our biggest games of the season,” said Jankovich. “Our guys needed to feel this and find a way to win and gain confidence and be in a dogfight.”