RENO, Nev. — Illinois State's basketball team participated in the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge on Wednesday night at the Lawlor Events Center.
The challenge hardly ends there for the Redbirds.
“This is probably as tough a three- to four-week stretch that I've had (as ISU coach),” said Dan Muller, who is in his sixth season with the Redbirds. “Two years ago we had a really tough nonconference schedule and a bunch of really good teams. It's similar to that.”
Late Wednesday, unbeaten Nevada made 14 3-pointers en route to a 98-68 win over ISU in the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge before a crowd of 8,293 at the Lawlor Center.
There will be no easing into the MVC opener on Dec. 23 at Evansville for the Redbirds.
ISU (3-3) entertains Tulsa at 3 p.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena, then hits the road again next Wednesday to face Brigham Young in Provo, Utah. The Redbirds will be home against Ohio Valley Conference favorite Murray State on Dec. 9 before taking a week off for final examinations.
It will be back on the road Dec. 16 against Mississippi of the Southeastern Conference. The nonconference schedule concludes Dec. 19 against Illinois-Chicago, one of the Horizon League favorites, at Redbird Arena.
“That's why I did the schedule this way, to test us,” said Muller. “We're not getting at an-large bid (to the NCAA Tournament). What I care about is helping this team grow more than winning one game.
“Obviously I want to win every game, but you can't be dealing with the issues we're dealing with now in a month. That's my whole focus. Hopefully we won't be dealing with them in a week.”
Junior forward Milik Yarbrough was suspended for the Quincy game last week for violation of team rules. Yarbrough came off the bench three days later against Charleston Southern, but played only 14 minutes in a 64-62 overtime loss.
ISU encountered a similar situation two years ago when Muller benched Paris Lee and played him only three minutes in a game right before the MVC season started. Lee was back in the starting lineup a couple games later and went on to become the MVC's most valuable player last season.
“Paris playing hard was never an issue. He was in a little funk for something else,” said Muller. “When that happened, that was much easier to fix than this one. We've been talking about competing consistently for months now. I fully believe everyone on the team will get there.”
The sooner that happens, the better it will be for the Redbirds.
“It doesn't have the names that Kentucky and Maryland had (two years ago), but the quality of opponent game after game until conference starts, there's no breaks,” said Muller.
The Redbirds have been helped in practice. Sophomore Matt Chastain, who is sitting out this season after transferring from Loyola, has started live contact situations.
The 6-foot-6 Chastain, a LeRoy High School graduate, suffered an ACL injury about a year ago with the Ramblers. Muller said Chastain began with 20 minutes of live contact in practice, which will gradually be increased.
ISU's depth on the court also should improve.
Freshman point guard Elijah Clarance returned from a stress fracture of his foot and played three minutes against Charleston Southern, but was hampered by severe blisters on both feet. The Redbirds hope 7-foot junior center David Ndiaye can return from his stress fracture in the next couple weeks.
ISU expected to enter this six-game stretch before conference begins on a three-game winning streak. Losing to Charleston Southern wasn't part of the plan.
“It's definitely something you don't want to sit and think about,” said ISU junior forward Phil Fayne. “It was definitely a learning experience. It's something to learn from, look back to, figure out what we did wrong and how we can improve.”
Not only do the Redbirds arguably face the toughest nonconference schedule in the MVC, but their road trips are lengthy.
ISU was gone six days for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic at Myrtle Beach. The Redbirds flew Tuesday to Reno, with a layover in Dallas, before arriving back on campus Thursday afternoon. The two-day trip to Brigham Young next week will come right before final exams.
“There's a lot going on right now with these guys,” said Muller. “It will be a tough stretch academically for us, which we're very cognizant of. We're trying to do extra study halls … it will be tough sledding here. It will test us, and I look forward to seeing how we respond.”