NORMAL — A recommitment to defense has helped Illinois State’s basketball team out of its tailspin.
Yet junior forward Jon Ekey knows Saturday is hardly the time for the Redbirds to catch their breath.
Evansville, which might set more screens than any team in the country with its motion offense, will try to halt ISU’s two-game winning streak in a Missouri Valley Conference game at 7:05 p.m. at Redbird Arena.
“You look at their team and you don’t see much size, but they get rebounds and they run around like crazy,” said Ekey. “(Thursday) in practice we all worked on guarding (Colt) Ryan or (Ned) Cox coming off 10 or 15 screens in one possession. They’ve got the guys to do that. One of the hardest things to guard is how they run around the whole time.”
ISU first-year coach Dan Muller started devoting about 75 percent of practice time to defense a couple weeks ago when the Redbirds faltered to start the Valley season.
After beginning 0-6 in the league, ISU’s defense has helped turn things around. The Redbirds have held their opponents under 42 percent field goal shooting in three of the last four halves while beating Southern Illinois (70-56) and Indiana State (60-58).
ISU (11-9 overall) has climbed out of the Valley basement into ninth place and could move up at least another spot in the standings with its third straight win as the league season reaches the halfway point.
“We’re playing better because we’re guarding,” said Muller. “We still get shots up (in practice) and work on offense. The way we were guarding in that stretch it didn’t matter how good our offense was. We were never going to win a game.”
Ekey has seen the Aces (12-8, 5-3) four times in the last two seasons, including a 32-point explosion by Ryan against ISU in 2011, and knows what awaits the Redbirds. ISU’s only victory against Evansville in the past four games came on Jackie Carmichael’s banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer last year at Redbird Arena.
This will be Muller’s first look at Evansville and sharp-shooting swingman Ryan, who is closing in on 2,000 career points.
“He’s a high, high, high-level player. He’s in great shape,” said Muller. “You have to be in great shape because you’re in constant movement in order to get shots. He makes hard shots. It’s not like he gets many open shots. We’ll have a lot of guys spend time on him.”
If the Redbirds would have faced Evansville a couple weeks ago, it could have been ugly.
“During that skid we relaxed a lot. You can really tell (when) we watched film after every game. It didn’t seem like we had each other’s back as much as we do now,” said Ekey. “It seemed if people’s offensive games weren’t going they just relaxed defensively, too. Heads were down at the other end.”
ISU’s confidence is slowly coming back. Muller said he isn’t too concerned about the Redbirds’ offensive troubles, which included not making a 3-pointer Wednesday against Indiana State for the first time in 417 games.
Ekey is one of those Redbird players looking to regain his shooting touch. He has gone 4 of 17 from 3-point range in the past seven games.
Last season Ekey shot 40.7 percent outside the arc.
“We have talent out there. It could be the next game or a couple games down (the road) where we have an offensive explosion and everyone is hitting,” he said. “I’m not too worried about it. Every day we tighten up our offense and work on our motion.”