NORMAL — Win or lose, there still will be 12 Missouri Valley Conference basketball games left for Illinois State.
Yet a victory against Wichita State at 7 p.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena could truly be a historic step toward a much bigger goal for ISU.
The Redbirds have not been alone in first place in the Valley since 1998 when they won their last regular-season title. ISU (13-4) and the Shockers (15-3) share the league's top spot with 5-0 records, two games ahead of the pack. Both teams are riding six-game winning streaks.
Whether this qualifies as a "statement game" for the Redbirds is a matter of debate.
"The statement we can make is I feel this team can play with anybody in the country, Wichita State being one of the top teams in the country," said ISU senior Paris Lee. "If we win this game, it will let them know there's another top team in the Valley."
There is no denying Wichita State — with or without departed stars Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker — is the king of the Valley.
The Shockers haven't been out of first since the final game of the 2013 season when they lost to Creighton. All Wichita State did from there was go to The Final Four.
Only two Valley teams have beaten Wichita State in the last three years — ISU and Northern Iowa. ISU beat Wichita State in the 2015 MVC Tournament semifinals (65-62) and at Redbird Arena last year (58-53).
However, the Redbirds don't think those wins give them a psychological advantage most other Valley teams fail to enjoy against the Shockers.
"The teams in the past are not here now, just us," said ISU junior MiKyle McIntosh. "We have confidence in ourselves now."
What the Redbirds might have learned from last year's game at Redbird Arena is not to get too hyped up for Saturday.
Lee said he noticed in the layup line a year ago that ISU was overly excited. What happened? "Wichita State punched us in the mouth," he said.
The Shockers went ahead by 16 early in the second half before the Redbirds staged a furious rally. Lee scored 13 of his game-high 19 points after the intermission as the ISU fans stormed Doug Collins Court afterward.
"I'm more concerned with them being too high than too low. That's the challenge," said ISU coach Dan Muller. "We love the hype now. I would love every game to have this hype. It means you're playing for something important."
Muller was a standout player on ISU's last two Valley championship teams in 1997 and 1998. He remembers what it feels like and wants his players to enjoy that experience.
But he doesn't want anyone to feel a sense of accomplishment for the 5-0 start.
"You can continue to build your confidence by playing great basketball and not thinking you've met your own expectations or you can play really good, get fat and happy, and get complacent," he said. "I want to embrace the hype and confidence and continue to get better."
Lee and Tony Wills have played seven games against the Shockers in the last three seasons, while McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins have competed in five the past two years.
Those four veterans realize, regardless of Saturday's outcome, plenty of challenges lie ahead.
"We're kind of mature now and won't make this game bigger than what it is," said Lee. "Honestly, I look at it as another game."
Still, ISU's coaches and players wouldn't mind seeing a sellout crowd. The last sellout at Redbird Arena came on Jan. 20, 2010 against Bradley.
As of Thursday afternoon, tickets remained in the upper and lower bowls. A large walk-up crowd is expected and fans are encouraged to get their tickets early (GoRedbirds.com/Tickets or 309-438-8000). The ticket office also will open early at noon Saturday.
ISU has won 14 straight games at Redbird Arena, tied for the second-longest streak since the building opened in 1989. A win Saturday would help the Redbirds try to achieve an undefeated home season at Redbird Arena for the first time.
"We take pride in our home court like anyone takes pride in their home," said McIntosh. "You don't let anyone come in your house and try to take your stuff or do anything to your stuff. We treat it like it's our house."