NORMAL — Tony Wills won't line up at center for Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference basketball opener against Missouri State at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Redbird Arena.
Then again, you never know.
The versatile 6-foot-4 junior made his first start at point guard in the Redbirds' last game, a 66-55 victory over Tennessee State on Dec. 22. Wills handled the assignment well, committing only one turnover in 31 minutes.
Whether regular point guard Paris Lee, who played only three minutes against Tennessee State, returns to his usual workload remains to be seen. If not, Wills is ready.
"Paris told me just to be calm and make the right decisions," said Wills. "He helped me out being a leader, and my teammates had confidence in me to always make the right play. That’s what I tried to do."
ISU coach Dan Muller wasn't worried about how Wills would handle the duties at the point. Wills, known more for his defense than offense, has now played everywhere for the Redbirds except the 5 (center) spot.
Muller believes Wills is playing the best basketball of his ISU career heading into MVC action.
"He's intelligent and picks up plays and defensive assignments conceptually," said the ISU coach. "He just knows where to be in a lot of ways. He's playing hard and that makes up for a lot of mistakes or lack of understanding. That's never been an issue with Tony."
Wills didn't sulk last season when Muller shortened his rotation in mid-February. That meant Wills, who started 16 of the first 26 games, didn't play in three games and had only 25 minutes in six others.
"I just always stayed positive," said Wills. "I had a couple of my teammates tell me just keep playing hard. That’s what I did. When I was on the bench I just kept cheering the guys on."
Whether Lee hears the cheers soon is a big question for many ISU faithful. The junior, who started 79 of his first 81 games as a Redbird, has not shot the ball well all season (37.7 percent from the field, 30 percent on 3-pointers) and committed 14 turnovers in his last five games before being benched.
"I still have faith in Paris and he’s still going to have a really good year," said Muller. "We've just got to help him play better and there's different ways to help him try to do that."
ISU (6-7) will be trying to win its Valley opener for the first time in four years. Missouri State (4-8) pulled off one of the league's best nonconference victories when it beat Oklahoma State, 64-63, on the road on Dec. 5.
But the Bears struggled in their last four games with three losses, including a 78-74 home setback to previously winless Southeast Missouri State in their last game on Dec. 22.
Two newcomers are playing key roles for Missouri State.
Dequon Miller, a 5-10 junior college transfer, averages 11.6 points and made a team-high 19 baskets from outside the arc. Freshman forward Obediah Church, who was playing in the State Farm Holiday Classic in the Twin Cities at this time last year for Springfield High School, is one of the Valley's top newcomers with 6.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.