NORMAL — Winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title has been the focus for Illinois State’s basketball team as it approached the league’s halfway point the last three seasons.
Now, it’s simply a matter of just winning a Valley game.
Frustrated. Desperate. Shocked.
Any of those words could be used to describe what ISU (8-11, 0-8 Valley) is feeling ahead of today’s 7:05 p.m. game against Southern Illinois (10-9, 4-4) at Redbird Arena. This is new territory for Coach Tim Jankovich and senior guard Alex Rubin in their fourth year in the Redbird program.
“As it goes on it gets more difficult because of the psychology of the whole situation and how important confidence is,” said Jankovich, whose record with ISU was 79-34 before the current eight-game slide. “We’re talking about a team that very few of these guys were here when things were going great. They don’t have a lot to draw from.”
Rubin is the team’s lone fourth-year senior. Despite the Redbirds’ relative inexperience, he fully expected another run at the Valley championship.
ISU finished second in 2008 and third the last two seasons. Only Northern Iowa (38) won more Valley games than ISU (35) from 2008-10.
“We’ve been spoiled the last three years. We’ve worked really hard and been to three postseason tournaments,” said Rubin. “We’ve been to the Valley (tournament) championship game a couple times. This is definitely a learning experience. We know this (struggle) could really help us.”
In the spirit of the president’s State of the Union address later this week, following is a State of the Redbirds with 11 regular-season games left:
w Focusing on the future and almost exclusively using younger players.
Jankovich: “I don’t think you just cast older players aside just because you’re not having a good year. That’s very difficult for me to do in general. Obviously we’re all extremely disappointed in the way things are going. Our whole focus is on trying to make strides. What other choice do you really have?”
w On how much pressure the team is starting to feel after not having won in 34 days.
Rubin: “Offensively you kind of see people trying to make an eight-point shot. If we go out there and play as hard as we can for 40 minutes and don’t win the game, you can walk out of the gym with your head held high. The day we play as hard as we can, all five people on the court and all 15 on the bench, is the day we’re going to start winning games.”
w Going with a full-court press or something out of the ordinary to get the team energized.
Jankovich: “We’ve tried a lot of different things, but you have to be careful. You can’t have a new flavor every day. You also don’t want to get too far away from your beliefs and philosophies, and the team also has to know we do have a belief and philosophy. We have a belief system that’s really worked for us over time here.”
w How things might have been different if SIU’s Carlton Fay didn’t sink a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left in Carbondale to overtake the Redbirds on Jan. 9.
Rubin: “It’s easy to play the ‘what-if’ game. We could be 4-4 or 3-5. We’re just learning as a team the importance of every possession of the game whether its seven minutes left in the first half or 40 seconds left in the second half. Fay hit a huge 3 in the corner over (Jon) Ekey, who is really long. But there was probably a play in the first half if we converted that it wouldn’t have come down to (Fay’s shot).”
w The Redbirds’ current 3-point field goal percentage of .289 is on pace to set an all-time school low.
Jankovich: “I’m probably the most surprised guy I know because I really felt that was going to be one of our strengths at the beginning of the year. Being young we had to make up for some inexperience, but I thought we had a lot of guys who can make some shots and that will make up for an awful lot. It usually does. Instead it’s been the opposite, and we’ve paid for it.”
Southern Illinois vs. Illinois State
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Site: Redbird Arena, Normal
Radio: WJBC (AM-1230, FM-93.7)
Records: Southern Illinois 10-9, 4-4 MVC; ISU 8-11, 0-8
Series history/last meeting: SIU leads, 73-64 (SIU won 63-59 on Jan. 9, 2011)
About the Salukis: Southern Illinois is 2-5 in road games, including 1-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Salukis' lone league victory on the road came Jan. 4 at Bradley (72-64) ... Sophomore center Gene Teague has missed five of the last eight games with a sprained ankle. Teague played 11 minutes and recorded nine points and four rebounds in the Salukis' 67-55 win over Evansville on Tuesday ... Senior guard Justin Bocot, a Bloomington High School graduate, has scored only three points in the last four games after hurting his knee in practice on Jan. 8 ... Carlton Fay scored 33 points, the second highest in his career, and hit the game-winning shot with 13 seconds left on Jan. 9 against ISU. Fay is averaging 17.0 points in Valley games. He scored his 1,000th career point Tuesday.
Next: Wednesday at Bradley, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: Southern Illinois 65, Illinois State 62
(Scoring, rebounding averages)
F - Mamadou Seck, 6-7, Jr. (10.8, 8.0); Carlton Fay, 6-8, Sr. (12.7, 4.5); G - Kendal Brown-Surles, 5-10, So. (6.1, 1.7); Mykel Cleveland, 6-1, Jr. (3.6, 2.1); John Freeman, 6-5, Sr. (5.7, 3.1).
F -John Wilkins, 6-9, So. (8.2, 4.4); Jon Ekey, 6-7, Fr. (4.7, 4.2); C - Jackie Carmichael, 6-9, So. (10.7, 4.5); G - Austin Hill, 6-1, Sr. (9.6, 2.4); Anthony Cousin, 5-11, So. (6.8, 1.4).