Before the ball was tossed in the air Sunday at Scottrade Center, the knuckles were already bloodied from pounding on the NCAA Tournament door. Illinois State basketball had been close enough to rap on it, press against it, in five of the previous 10 years.
Each time, the thing wouldn’t budge. Someone else celebrated a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship.
Now here we were by mid-afternoon. Another open locker room, same old open wound. Another lost St. Louis Sunday for a program desperate for a different ending.
This time it was Loyola and a familiar face, former ISU coach Porter Moser, who extended the Redbirds’ NCAA drought to an even 20 years. The top-seeded and regular-season champion Ramblers looked the part in every way, winning 65-49. It wasn’t that close.
Outside the Redbird locker room, someone said, “Wonder what the record is for losing the championship game?”
Stuff like that comes up when it’s been six of 11 years. The answer is Illinois State. The Redbirds have been the MVC Tournament runner-up nine times in all. Missouri State is second with seven.
“It’s very frustrating,” said junior guard Keyshawn Evans, a tear zig-zagging down his right cheek. “It’s tough two years in a row like this. We have one more go at it. Us juniors, we have one more go.”
That was Sunday’s silver lining. Every Redbird team to experience this has looked for something in the immediate aftermath. This one seemed more legitimate than most: ISU has no seniors. The Redbirds’ top three scorers, Milik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne and Evans, are juniors.
There is modest hope of a National Invitation Tournament bid, though at 18-15 that seems unlikely.
If, in fact, the focus shifts to next year, there was a shimmer of light in the disappointed Redbird locker room. With Loyola transfer Matt Chastain of LeRoy and guard Zach Copeland poised to become eligible next season, just maybe ...
“It hurts. But we all know that this is a great group and we have no seniors,” sophomore guard Matt Hein said. “We feel like we have a pretty good opportunity to get back here to where we are right now.”
That is, in the championship game, not the losing locker room. ISU has spent enough time there to pay rent.
The only way to stop that is to get better. And when it matters most, be better.
“We might go to the NIT, but if not, we have to look forward to making this a great summer and then being back next year,” Evans said. “We don’t know if this year’s over yet. If it is, it is. We’ll get our minds right for next year.”
That’s what makes this so difficult every March. It takes a lot to get in this position, to be within arm’s length of that stubborn door.
Opportunity isn’t handed out like a campus flyer. It is earned through what coach Dan Muller and his team call the “process.”
What does that mean?
“It’s 6 a.m. weights in the summer,” junior guard William Tinsley said. “It’s the conditioning and all of that stuff. To fall short … it’s tough.”
Oh, and there’s this.
“It’s every day,” Hein said. “You can’t get tired of the process.”
If it seems like a lot of work, you’re right. But it’s the only way.
It’s how Loyola was able to hoist a trophy and cut down nets Sunday, celebrating its first NCAA bid since 1985. It starts in weight rooms and empty gyms when none of us is watching.
Sophomore guard Madison Williams said the Redbirds need to “remember the feeling, how this feels.”
They also would do well to remember the precision and discipline Loyola displayed Sunday and while winning the regular-season title by four games.
“That’s a great team we played,” Williams said. “They’re a very solid team. That’s how they get you. They don’t try to make the spectacular play. They always make the solid, right play. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, they take advantage.”
So by mid-afternoon, the Ramblers were out on the court hugging fans, coaches, moms, dads, girlfriends, one another, the team mascot … everyone they could during a joyous celebration.
ISU hasn’t done that since Muller was a senior forward in 1998.
Maybe next year … again.