NORMAL — When Illinois State and Indiana State faced each other last season, it was the Sycamores who boasted the veteran point guard.
The roles have switched this season, although the Redbirds' Paris Lee is still just a sophomore. Indiana State (4-8) has struggled without four-year regular Jake Odum running the show ahead of the Missouri Valley Conference basketball opener against ISU (8-4) at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Redbird Arena.
Meanwhile, Lee is coming off a career-high nine assist performance, with no turnovers, during Monday's 99-57 blowout over Division II Quincy. The 6-foot Lee believes having one Valley season under his belt will be beneficial as another starts.
"I know what to expect now. Last year I didn't know conference basketball was way different than nonconference basketball," said Lee. "It's more like, to me, the NBA playoffs (compared to the regular season).
"There's more intensity and more people are trying to go at your head. Teams know you better."
Lee ranks No. 2 in the Valley in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4) and fourth in assists (4.0 per game). He's also tied with Wichita State's Fred VanVleet, who leads the aforementioned categories, with 2.2 steals per game.
The addition of former Iowa star and NBA player Dean Oliver to the Redbird coaching staff has helped Lee's development.
"We have a lot of film sessions and he just tells me the things I should worry about and the things I shouldn't worry about," said Lee. "I'm thankful for that."
The Redbirds have undergone a difficult December health-wise with injuries to DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (broken hand), Deontae Hawkins (stress reaction in foot), Reggie Lynch (back) and Bobby Hunter (concussion).
Hawkins has missed the last three games, while Lynch sat out Monday. Both are questionable to play against the Sycamores and considered "day to day," according to ISU coach Dan Muller.
What Muller knows for sure is Lee will be there for his team-high 45th consecutive start.
"His ability to get in the paint, push the ball in transition and find guys is really important for our team," said Muller. "It's part of the reason why offensively we're kind of clicking lately."
The Sycamores can't say the same thing. They haven't beaten a Division I team since Nov. 24, with the lone victory in their last eight games against Division II Truman State.
After finishing second in the Valley regular season and tournament last season, Indiana State has found life without Odum difficult. Odum's expected replacement, Tre' Bennett, has struggled to make the adjustment from junior college.
Indiana State also has struggled shooting with their .410 field goal percentage ranked No. 275 in the country.
"It's really been an accumulation of a lot of little things," said Greg Lansing, who is in his fifth season as the Sycamores' coach. "Our inexperience, first and foremost, and our returnees have not played as well as maybe they're capable of. Our young guys are trying to find their roles and how to play for us."
Akoon-Purcell, who is ISU's second-leading scorer behind Daishon Knight, remains out for a while. But Muller said the injuries have not changed the Redbirds' goal to win their first conference title since 1998.
"We're lucky because we have good depth and guys can step in and play," he said. "We'll roll out there with whoever is healthy. We'll get those other guys treated as quickly as we can, but we don't look for excuses or reasons why we can't succeed."