NORMAL — David Ndiaye heard the challenge Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller directed at him. If you don't believe it, check out Ndiaye's numbers the past two games.
The 7-foot junior center tied his career high with six blocks in a 75-71 win over Evansville last Saturday. In the past two games against the Purple Aces and Missouri State, Ndiaye averaged 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 points.
Muller made it clear a week ago that Ndiaye's production had to improve to warrant him starting and staying on the court. ISU will need more of the same from Ndiaye when it faces Southern Illinois at 8 p.m. Thursday (CBS Sports Network) in a key Missouri Valley Conference game at Redbird Arena.
"We had a talk, and he (Muller) explained to me that I needed to do better and I wasn't doing my job," said Ndiaye. "We agreed that I needed to step it up. Hopefully I've been getting there. There's still some work that needs to be done."
SIU and ISU are the league's hottest teams. The Salukis have won five straight, improving to 16-9 overall, and are second place in the league at 8-4, a game behind Loyola.
The Redbirds (13-11) are on a three-game winning streak and shared third with Bradley and Drake at 7-5 entering this week.
ISU will be without Keyshawn Evans. The junior point guard, who averages 15.6 points per game and is the team's top 3-point shooter (71 of 162), is out one to three weeks after suffering a bone bruise to his left knee against Evansville.
Another issue appeared when ISU's Milik Yarbrough (16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists per game) was arrested early Wednesday morning for failure to appear in court Monday on a pending traffic citation for driving on a suspended license last year.
Yarbrough posted a $420 bond and was released, with a court date set for Feb. 20. His status for Thursday's game is unclear. A spokesman in ISU's sports information office said "the university is aware of the situation and is handling it internally."
Ndiaye missed ISU's first 13 games with a stress fracture. When he returned, Ndiaye wasn't blocking shots at the same pace as when he led the Redbirds with 1.6 per game last season.
Muller said running harder in practice, along with extra running, helped Ndiaye get in better shape.
"Game shape is different than practice or running shape," said the Redbird coach. "He is in better shape and that's why he's playing better and I've been able to play him more."
Ndiaye agreed with Muller's assessment that he wasn't the same player when he began to get fatigued. Extra workouts outside of practice have helped build Ndiaye's stamina.
"I feel like I'm getting in better game shape every time I play," he said. "It's hard when you come back and be in game shape because we work out so much (in the preseason) getting ready for the season. Then you come back after 13 games and it's hard to be in that zone where you can go so long."
Ndiaye squares off Thursday against 6-10 Kavion Pippen, the nephew of NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Pippen was named MVC Newcomer of the Week on Monday after averaging 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals while making 15 of 19 field goal attempts in two wins last week.
ISU will be out to avenge a 74-70 loss to SIU in Carbondale on Jan. 13 when the Redbirds squandered a 14-point lead in the last eight minutes.
A rash of injuries, including season-ending knee surgery for preseason all-MVC second-team forward Thik Bol, has limited the Salukis to using six players the majority of games. Not only has SIU survived, but it is fighting for its first league title since 2007.
SIU coach Barry Hinson said "we're not scaring the Redbirds" as the Salukis have lost 10 straight games at Redbird Arena.
"It will be the same thing for every game we play," said Hinson. "When you're playing six guys you have no margin for error. In some way or another, everyone has to step up.
"We need to get some help coming off the bench if we can with No. 7 or 8 to give us something. To play in that atmosphere, we'll need more than six guys."