NORMAL — Illinois State and Northern Iowa were picked to finish second and third, respectively, in the Missouri Valley Conference basketball race.
After the two teams square off at 7:05 p.m. today at Redbird Arena, someone is guaranteed to be 0-3 in the league.
“One team is going to come out Saturday and be the aggressor and have that look on their face — and that’s going to be us,” said ISU senior Tyler Brown.
It might be wrong to call this a must victory for either side. However, ISU (9-5) and UNI (7-7) are both 0-2 in the league and trail favorite Creighton by two games.
Neither can afford to fall three games off the pace — even if it’s only the first week of January — if it expects to compete for the title.
“There’s no panic. But there needs to be a heightened sense of urgency,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “You would hope your players play with a sense of urgency in all games. We have a group that needs to play with an urgency.
“Everyone in this program needs to be a little mad. Losing is not OK.”
ISU lost its Valley opener at Indiana State, 77-75, last Sunday. The Redbirds’ effort was better at home Wednesday, but No. 16-ranked Creighton pulled away in the last minute to take a 79-72 victory.
“You play the games the way the schedule sets them,” said Muller. “We’ve played two of the tougher games in the league so far. We had chances to win both. We didn’t play our best in both, and we need to play better. The schedule will even itself out over the course of the year. We need to win games going forward in the schedule.”
Meanwhile, UNI played a killer nonconference schedule (Louisville, Stanford, Memphis, Iowa, UNLV) that it hoped would pay off in the Valley campaign.
So far it hasn’t.
The Panthers were routed at Wichita State in the opener, 66-41, before falling at home to Indiana State, 65-61. After talking before the season about speeding up the pace, UNI coach Ben Jacobson seems to be going back to the Panthers’ tried-and-true formula of tough man-to-man defense and efficient half-court offense.
“When I talk about getting a little simpler with what we’re doing, that’s going to help this team,” said Jacobson to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. “To get a little better understanding of what we’re trying to get will help them in terms of confidence.”
Brown insists two straight losses haven’t shaken the Redbirds’ confidence.
“I don’t think you can dwell on it too much or think we’re 0-2 in the conference and have got to win this game,” he said. “You have to go out there and play. Everything is going to fall into place as long as we practice well the week before and focus on what you can do to win.”
One area where Muller knows ISU needs to focus is on defense.
The Redbirds’ opponents are shooting 42.6 percent from the field, a figure that is too high for Muller’s liking. Creighton, one of the nation’s top shooting teams, hit 52.8 percent.
While ISU limited high-scoring Doug McDermott to 15 points, it let Creighton’s Ethan Wragge too much space on the perimeter and paid the price. Wragge knocked in six 3-pointers. UNI also has a couple big men in Seth Tuttle and Jake Koch capable of draining shots outside the arc.
“Our opponents are getting into the lane too much,” said Brown. “We have to tighten up on drives to the basket. If we stop drives to basket and penetration we’ll be fine.”
Carmichael sets record: ISU senior Jackie Carmichael got a blocked shot against Creighton to set the school career record of 161. Greg Dilligard held the old mark of 160 from 2003-07.
Northern Iowa at Illinois State
Time: 7:05 p.m. today
Site: Redbird Arena, Normal
Radio: WJBC (AM-1230, FM-93.7)
Series/last meeting: Illinois State leads, 36-26 (ISU won, 54-42, on March 2, 2012).
Records: UNI 7-7, 0-2 MVC; Illinois State 9-5, 0-2
About the Panthers: UNI was picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference in a preseason poll of league coaches, media and sports information directors ... Seth Tuttle scored a career-high 24 points with 10 rebounds in Wednesday’s 65-61 loss to Indiana State. It was Tuttle’s sixth career double-double … Anthony James needs three points to become the 35th player in school history to reach 1,000 for his career ... Marc Sonnen leads UNI with 32 baskets from 3-point range and is shooting 42.1 percent out the arc. Sonnen ranks No. 9 in school history with 137 3-pointers.
Next: Tuesday at Missouri State, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: Illinois State 72, UNI 65
(Scoring, rebounding avg)
F – Seth Tuttle, 6-8, So. (10.9, 5.9); Jake Koch, 6-9, Sr. (9.9, 6.4); G – Deon Mitchell, 6-1, So. (11.2, 1.8); Marc Sonnen, 6-3, Sr. (8.8, 1.9); Anthony James, 6-0, Sr. (10.4, 3.5).
F –Jon Ekey, 6-7, Jr. (9.0, 4.8); Jackie Carmichael, 6-9, Sr. (17.3, 8.3); G –Tyler Brown, 6-4, Sr. (16.6, 3.3); Bryant Allen, 6-0, Jr. (9.8, 2.1); Johnny Hill, 6-3, So. (5.6, 3.3).