NORMAL — Final examinations are coming up in another week at Illinois State. Taylor Bruninga's body might be feeling like he's already gone through those on the basketball court.
Because of injuries and other factors, the freshman forward has been thrown into the mix from the Redbirds' first game. That has involved going against several top-notch physical players in the post.
Bruninga hasn't backed down. He probably has the bruises to show for it, too.
"Obviously as time goes on I'll get stronger," said the 6-foot-8, 200-pound Illini Bluffs High School graduate, who averages 5.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game. "It makes me know once I get stronger and stuff, it will be a lot easier down there."
Bruninga will have something to draw back on Saturday when ISU (3-4) entertains Tulsa (4-3) at 3 p.m. at Redbird Arena. The Redbirds took an 84-68 victory over the Golden Hurricane two weeks ago during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic at Myrtle Beach.
Tulsa brings in one of the bruisers Bruninga already has faced in Junior Etou, who averages 17.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. The 6-8, 235-pound senior scored 16 points against ISU the first game, but fouled out in 26 minutes.
"I think the mindset you have to have is you can't back down from them," said Bruninga of going against older and mature players. "You have to face the challenge and do the best you can to step up and play."
ISU hopes to have Milik Yarbrough ready to play. The junior forward was knocked out of Wednesday's 98-68 loss at unbeaten Nevada in the first half after taking a knee to his chin and suffering from concussion symptoms.
Redbird coach Dan Muller said Yarbrough was feeling better Thursday, but didn't practice when the team returned from Reno in the afternoon. Yarbrough, who scored 14 points in 10 minutes against Nevada, was to be evaluated later Friday by the team's neurosurgeon before determining his status.
ISU freshman guard Elijah Clarance likely won't play because of severe blisters on his feet, while 7-foot junior center David Ndiaye (stress fracture) remains out.
So having Yarbrough could be crucial to sweeping the Golden Hurricane. In a scheduling quirk in tournaments, this will be the second straight year that ISU and Tulsa have played twice in the regular season.
The Golden Hurricane left the Missouri Valley Conference in 1996. To ISU, it almost seems like they've returned.
"I remember how excited our team was to play them the second time last year after they had beaten us. We played extremely well," said ISU coach Dan Muller of a 68-56 victory in Hawaii.
"But it will be a new game. The first game will have nothing to do with this one. That's very important for our players to understand. We told them that, but whether they understand it or not we'll find out. Tulsa is way better than what they showed before."
ISU played a zone for all but the final four minutes against Tulsa in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic's third-place game. The Golden Hurricane, who are playing their first true road game, have won their last two since losing to the Redbirds, including a 100-96 victory over Texas-San Antonio on Tuesday.
Stopping Etou could be the key. The Rutgers transfer averages almost 10 free throws per game, which ranks No. 7 in the nation.
"He not only scores and rebounds, but he looks to me like he's the heart of their team," said Muller. "He plays with passion and really competes. He makes big plays. He's really hard to stop inside."
ISU's Phil Fayne will be playing with a heavy heart. The junior forward learned shortly after Wednesday's game that his grandfather had passed away. Funeral services have not been set yet, said Muller.