EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Ask Jon Ekey where Illinois State sits in the Missouri Valley Conference basketball standings and his response?
“In the middle,” said ISU’s junior forward. “I’m not exactly sure where.”
What Ekey does know is the Redbirds must put the events from Sunday’s stunning last-minute loss quickly behind them, especially with today’s opponent being “in the middle” of the Valley pack along with ISU.
For the record, the Redbirds (16-11 overall) are tied for fifth place with Evansville and Bradley at 7-8 with three league games left. That makes the 7:05 p.m. game Wednesday against Evansville (14-13) at the Ford Center all the more important in regard to the Valley Tournament in two weeks.
The top six teams avoid the March 7 play-in round in St. Louis before the quarterfinals the next day.
“This is the last time any of us (ISU, Bradley and Evansville) play each other. It’s a big game for a lot of reasons,” said Redbird coach Dan Muller. “We’re playing well, and we played well Sunday. My main focus is we continue to play well.”
ISU, which has won seven of its last nine games, did everything right for 39 minutes against league-leading Wichita State. But a controversial flagrant foul, along with a couple Redbird breakdowns, allowed the Shockers to score the final eight points and escape with a 68-67 victory.
Muller and his players admittedly didn’t sleep well that night. But the ISU coach was “very happy with our spirit in practice” on Monday and hopes having a veteran team helps in focusing on Evansville instead of Wichita State.
The ISU coach said he texted his team later Sunday night and again Monday before meeting with a couple players individually before practice.
“I could tell early they were not going to have a hangover because of it,” he said. “The fans can be mad until Wednesday, but we had an important day of preparation in practice.”
Outside of freshman Kaza Keane and redshirt freshman Nick Zeisloft (who is out with a knee injury), the rest of the Redbirds’ roster consists of older players.
Ekey believes that should assist the Redbirds in moving on from Sunday.
“We know we have another chance hopefully to see them (Wichita State) again in the tournament,” said Ekey. “We know everything comes down to the tournament for us anyway … if we were younger, in our anger, we probably would not be as focused on this one, but being more mature we know the next one is more important than what just happened.”
The Purple Aces have lost four of their last five games, including a 71-68 setback to Creighton on Saturday. Like ISU, Evansville has plenty of veteran players who Coach Marty Simmons said “are doing everything they possibly can” to close the season on a high note.
But Simmons won’t mention the implications of today’s outcome in regard to seeding for the Valley Tournament.
“After we talk about all the things that Illinois State does well, it will probably take up enough time,” said Simmons. “Our guys understand that stuff.”