CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Kaza Keane has experienced the typical growing pains of most Division I freshman basketball players. There have been high points, low points and several points in between.
Yet as his initial season with Illinois State winds down with Saturday’s regular-season finale, the 6-foot-1 point guard from Ontario, Canada, is again becoming a dependable contributor in the Redbirds’ rotation.
“I’ve been practicing a lot better and getting better at defensive stuff,” said Keane. “My mind is definitely going back to the way I wanted it to be. This is the right time to get back there going into the postseason.”
Keane, who cut off his Mohawk earlier this week to get a “fresh” start, is well aware finishing off with a victory at the McLeod Center could make ISU’s postseason path a little easier. The Redbirds have their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament fate in their own hands as they meet Northern Iowa at 7 p.m.
ISU (17-13, 8-9 MVC) would clinch the No. 6 seed in the league tournament by winning for the first time at the McLeod Center, which opened in 2006. The Redbirds would play Evansville or Indiana State in a Friday quarterfinal game in St. Louis.
But a Redbird loss, coupled with a Drake victory against last-place Southern Illinois, would push the Redbirds into a play-in round game Thursday against SIU.
There is one other scenario. If both ISU and Drake lose, the Redbirds would finish sixth and face UNI (17-13, 10-7) in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“We won’t address those at this point,” said ISU coach Dan Muller of the MVC tourney possibilities. “It’s a big game because it’s the next one and we’re trying to play our best basketball.”
Keane’s best basketball came early in the season. He started the first six games and had a pair of nine-assist performances. But he sprained his right ankle before the Redbirds went to Louisville and missed that game.
Although he kept playing it took Keane a while to recover, especially mentally, and Johnny Hill eventually replaced him as a starter. Then Keane suffered a concussion near the end of a game at Drake on Feb. 6 and missed another game.
Keane enjoyed one of his best games in the Valley season Wednesday. He scored five points, but more importantly had five assists and only one turnover in the Redbirds’ 86-50 rout over Missouri State.
“Some of it is physical, but so much of it — getting through the ups and downs, getting used to the competition and not playing as much as you’re used to — is mental,” said Muller. “Right now his head is in the right place and he’s embracing what he’s doing.”
Keane’s forte is being a pass-first point guard. He is averaging more assists (3.4) than points (2.7) per game, but hopes to become a more consistent scorer in the future.
However, Keane knows he must be respected on the perimeter. He took three 3-point shots against Missouri State, knocking down one.
“I’ve been in the gym a lot more trying to work on that, so teams play us more honestly and I can help my teammates out,” said Keane, who is 8 of 28 outside the arc. “Backing off (on me) is not really helping Jackie (Carmichael) out.”
ISU could get back a perimeter threat Saturday. Muller said redshirt freshman Nick Zeisloft, who has missed the last four games with a knee sprain, practiced the past two days and is questionable.
The Redbirds are shooting for some history, too. They could become the first team in the Valley’s 106 years to finish at .500 in league play after starting off 0-6.