For ISU hoops advance vs. SIU

Illinois State's Isaac Gassman, right, fights for a rebound with Missouri State's Alize Johnson during last Sunday's game at Redbird Arena. Gassman, who scored a career-high 11 points Wednesday, and ISU travel to face Southern Illinois on Saturday.

DAVID PROEBER, THE PANTAGRAPH

CARBONDALE — Whether he comes in games for Illinois State's basketball team early or late, Isaac Gassman's mindset remains pretty much the same.

"No. 1 is to play really hard on both ends of the floor and be ready and be a threat on offense," said the 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman. "Don't go into one game thinking you have to do too much. Just play your game and things usually work out."

Recently, ISU coach Dan Muller has been calling on Gassman as one of his first substitutes off the bench. Gassman responded with a season-high 11 points Wednesday, sinking three 3-pointers, in a 68-61 loss to Loyola.

Gassman and the Redbirds try to get back on the winning track when they face Southern Illinois in a Missouri Valley Conference game at 5 p.m. Saturday at SIU Arena (CBS Sports Network).

ISU (9-8) is tied with four others for second place in the jumbled MVC race at 3-2. The Salukis (10-8) are in a three-way tie for seventh at 2-3.

With several ISU players struggling with their shots, Muller sees Gassman as another scoring option to take the pressure off Milik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne and Keyshawn Evans.

Gassman, an Ottawa High School graduate who walked on last year but was given a scholarship for this season, is shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 46.7 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 3.7 points and 1.9 rebounds.

"He's shooting the heck out of the ball and others aren't, plus Ike is competing and playing well on defense and rebounding," said Muller. "Both reasons are important."

Gassman only took one shot in last Sunday's win over Missouri State. However, he contributed three steals, two rebounds and an assist in 20 minutes.

With Loyola focusing on ISU's top three scorers, Gassman was able to get some space and delivered, going 4 of 5 from the floor and 3 of 4 outside the arc in 22 minutes.

Gassman struggled on the defensive end earlier in the season, but seems to be finding his comfort zone there.

"A lot of it is knowing the speed of the game and just knowing where to be in certain spots," said Gassman. "Different teams have different schemes. That's the biggest thing for me. My defensive IQ has been better of late."

After having one of the nation's best defensive teams last season, ISU has seen a major slippage this season.

MVC opponents are shooting 47.4 percent against the Redbirds. In Muller's previous five years as Redbird coach, the highest field goal rate for league opponents was 42.4 percent.

That's one of the main reasons Muller is devoting more practice time to defense than offense.

"I'm still trying to figure out what buttons to push and the right personnel and the right schemes," said Muller. "Until we get better defensively, we're not fooling ourselves."

SIU, which was picked to finish fifth in the MVC preseason poll, has been crippled by injuries.

Senior forward Thik Bol, a second-team all-league preseason choice, won't play this season because of a knee injury. Another senior forward, Jonathan Wiley, played the first 15 games before also being lost for the season with a knee injury.

Junior guard Eric McGill averaged almost 23 minutes off the bench in the first eight games before injured ligaments in his left hand eventually put him out for the season. 

Point guard Marcus Bartley, a transfer from Saint Louis where he was Yarbrough's teammate for two years, missed the first six games with a broken bone in his wrist.

Bartley, who was heavily recruited by ISU when he was at Decatur MacArthur High School, has been playing through a lower back ailment that caused him to miss another game.

SIU used only seven players in a 68-62 loss to Bradley on Tuesday, and that was with forward Rudy Stradnieks playing nine minutes.

"Nobody in this country has gone through what this basketball team has," said SIU coach Barry Hinson. "If we just continue to get better at what we're doing we have enough to win basketball games, but we just don't have any margin for error."  

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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