NORMAL — When John Wilkins played only four minutes in a loss at Missouri State on Jan. 8, his senior season looked like it might end with a seat on the bench.
Yet Wilkins was determined not to let his Illinois State basketball career finish off that way.
“I thought I’ve got to go back to basics. I still had confidence in myself and had to play harder in practice,” said the 6-foot-9 forward from France. “I was not playing good in practice and my production wasn’t very good. So he (Coach Dan Muller) told me to play harder in practice and prove you can be on the floor.”
Soon after, Wilkins did just what his first-year coach wanted. Suddenly Wilkins’ season, along with that of the Redbirds, took on a much different outlook.
ISU (16-10) has dug itself out of a 0-6 start to the Missouri Valley Conference season and sits at 7-7 with four league games left. A huge test waits Sunday when ISU entertains Valley-leader Wichita State (21-5, 10-4) at 7:05 p.m. at Redbird Arena.
The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPNU and is being billed as “Red Out Wichita,” with fans asked to wear red. ISU also will don its red road uniforms.
“We want to see all red,” said Wilkins, flashing his ever-present smile. “Like the Bradley game when we got momentum and got going, (the crowd) was a big help. This game it would be a really huge help.”
Getting Wilkins going in the right direction has been a huge help to the Redbirds.
Wilkins, who started all but one game last season, didn’t make his first start this season until Jan. 20. The Redbirds have gone 7-1 in that stretch. Wilkins has averaged 9.1 points and 4.0 rebounds and shot 42.9 percent from 3-point range as a starter. He also has made his last 16 free throws.
“He had to practice better and play with more physicality and toughness that I was looking for,” said Muller. “He started shooting it better, and I think he’s shooting it better because he got in extra workouts outside of practice. That helped him play better and gain confidence, which has helped him offensively. He’s really embraced his role.”
Wilkins knows his role starts on the defensive end, using his length to make it difficult for opponents to score in the low post and playing physical inside next to Jackie Carmichael.
That especially holds true against Wichita State. The Shockers use four players who are 6-foot-8 or bigger. Wichita State is the king of toughness in the Valley, leading the league in scoring defense (58.8 points per game), field goal percentage defense (.391), 3-point field goal percentage defense (.314) and rebound margin (plus 9.0).
“They’re really street fighters,” said Wilkins.
Wilkins got in a street fight with Wichita State at last year’s Valley Tournament semifinal game. He was involved in a couple altercations with 7-footer Garrett Stutz and was ejected after picking up his second technical foul with 12 minutes left.
The Redbirds went on to a 65-64 upset of the regular-season champion Shockers. It was ISU’s only win in its last eight games against Wichita State.
“They have very good athleticism, and that helps with their defense,” said Muller. “They’re physical guys, and they’re a very good road team. Gregg (Marshall) has done a good job of instilling the culture of winning on the road over the years.”
Wilkins had the pressure of trying to win over some older Redbird fans the minute he arrived on campus.
Many remembered the accomplishments of his father, Jeff Wilkins, an ISU star in the mid-1970s who later played in the NBA and whose No. 00 hangs from the Redbird Arena rafters.
“When I first came I was kind of overshadowed by him. Then I was, like, man just forget it and play John Wilkins basketball and not Jeff Wilkins. That’s what I’m doing,” said Wilkins. “He’s proud of me, and I’m proud of playing at the same school he did.”
Wilkins also is proud of another event happening in his life in the next week or so. He will become a father when his girlfriend, Sarah Bouchigha, gives birth to a son, whom they already have named Jayden.
“I’m really excited,” he said.