NORMAL — After 71 victories in the previous three seasons, Illinois State’s basketball team rose to become an elite program in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Then the bottom dropped out in the 2010-11 season.
The Redbirds and Bradley tied for last place in the Valley — or ninth, if that sounds better. When ISU fell to Southern Illinois in a Valley tournament play-in game on March 4, it was the final act in a 12-19 season that left everyone involved with the program frustrated.
Coach Tim Jankovich and his staff have been on the road ever since, looking for help for next season and beyond. The returning players began individual workouts again on March 20. So far, there has been no word if anyone will be leaving. Jankovich has one scholarship available for next season.
Four starters and others who earned valuable minutes return next season, along with a couple intriguing freshmen. It’s not like Jankovich will have to start over again when practice begins in October, but the Redbirds have plenty to prove to their fans and Valley rivals.
“I think the potential is there, but there has to be significant growth and a sense of urgency and a tremendous commitment which, in a word, is character,” said Jankovich.
Following are five areas that ISU needs to address be a Valley contender again next season.
It was painful to watch the Redbirds on offense this past season. ISU averaged 61.1 points, its lowest output in five seasons. The Redbirds only scored 70 or more points twice in the final 18 games and needed overtime in both of those to make that happen.
ISU set 3-point school records in two of Jankovich’s first three seasons. The Redbirds thought they had plenty of shooters again, but 31-percent accuracy outside the arc said otherwise.
Austin Hill was ISU’s only player to average in double figures at 10.5 points, and he is gone. The good news is that five returning players have scored 20 or more points in a Division I game and that doesn’t include forward John Wilkins, who might have the biggest upside of any Redbird.
The Redbirds’ biggest need is for Jackie Carmichael, Wilkins, Jon Ekey, Anthony Cousin and Justin Clark to become more consistent scoring threats. Adding a wing scorer from the juco ranks wouldn’t hurt, either.
Carmichael and Ekey should have known going against Dinma Odiakosa in practice every day the previous season that there is no substitute for strength in the middle. Wilkins quickly found that out in his first season of Division I ball.
Outside of senior Tony Lewis, the Redbirds had trouble against physical teams such as Wichita State, which manhandled them in the post. Redshirt freshman Jordan Threloff will be thrown into the mix next season and has a big body at 6-foot-10, 255 pounds.
The Redbird inside players must live in new strength coach Jim Lathrop’s world the next six months. Each of them needs to add at least 10 pounds — 25 in Wilkins’ case — to be able to withstand the rigors of a long season.
3. Point guard
Lloyd Phillips was a favorite target of critics the previous two seasons as ISU’s point guard. Many Redbird faithful appreciated Phillips much more after he left.
Junior college transfers Anthony Cousin and Kenyon Smith struggled running the team. Smith battled numerous injuries all season. Cousin showed promise at times but never quite figured out what he could or couldn’t do.
Freshman Nic Moore of Warsaw, Ind., could be the answer in the fall. Moore enjoyed a spectacular high school career and is a candidate for Indiana Mr. Basketball. Although only 5-9, Moore has a big enough body to take the contact inside.
It might be a lot to put on a freshman’s shoulders, but Moore could be just what the Redbirds desperately need. And don’t forget about Bryant Allen, the transfer from Minnesota who will be a wide receiver for the ISU football team before joining the hoopsters. Allen is seriously quick.
It might have gotten lost in the shuffle because of the offensive ineptitude, but toward the end of the season ISU became a pretty decent defensive team. The Redbirds held their last three opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field, which is usually a recipe for victory.
The Redbirds have the length in players such as Ekey, Wilkins and Clark to become a shutdown defensive unit. Clark’s problems on the offensive end, particularly shooting, have been well documented in his first two seasons, but at 6-4 he proved to be able to put the clamps on many top scorers.
Ekey and Carmichael were two of the Valley’s best shot blockers. If they can add physical strength to their athletic ability, the Redbirds can be one of the league’s top defensive units.
Jankovich has taken a lot of heat for the soft nonconference schedule that ISU has played his first four years. But as UNLV showed in blasting ISU, 82-51, in early December, this season’s Redbirds weren’t ready for the big boys.
ISU will be challenged in the 2011-12 season. The Redbirds face Rutgers of the Big East Conference in Cancun in November before meeting either Illinois or Richmond — both NCAA tourney teams — the next day. There also are road games at another NCAA tourney squad, Morehead State, and Fresno State.
The nonconference schedule is something the Redbirds should embrace as they sweat in the spring and summer. As VCU and Butler are showing everyone, the difference between the BCS conference teams and top mid-majors isn’t that great.
G Trey Blue, F Jackie Carmichael, G Justin Clark, G Anthony Cousin, G Kenyon Smith, F John Wilkins
G Bryant Allen, F Jon Ekey, F Zeke Upshaw
G Johnny Hill, G Nic Moore, C Jordan Threloff, G Nick Zeisloft