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Illinois State guard Matt Hein (5) cuts through the Bradley defense during the first half of their Missouri Valley Conference game last month at Redbird Arena. ISU entertains Evansville at 3 p.m. Saturday.

DAVID PROEBER, THE PANTAGRAPH

NORMAL — Illinois State's Matt Hein admits suddenly being back in the thick of the Missouri Valley Conference basketball race is "in the back of our minds."

Yet in the next breath, Hein wants everyone to know what's in the front of the Redbirds' thoughts.

"We have to make sure we stay consistent, go game by game and focus on Evansville coming up Saturday," said the redshirt sophomore guard.

And that means guarding Evansville's motion offense and Valley scoring leader Ryan Taylor. ISU (12-11), which is tied for fourth place in the league at 6-5, entertains the Purple Aces (15-9, 5-6) at 3 p.m. at Redbird Arena.

A rejuvenated defensive effort in the last two games against Valparaiso and Missouri State — holding each under 40 percent field goal shooting — has ISU only two games behind league leader Loyola with seven left.

ISU coach Dan Muller said before Friday afternoon's practice he had not discussed the league race with his team. But he's contemplating doing so because he's heard they are chatting about it.

"It doesn't bother me in any way. It's human nature," said Muller. "Those are always a fragile thing to me when you talk about seeding or your opportunity or chances because every coach knows focusing on the next game is the most important. I kind of know where we're at (in the MVC race)."

ISU started the Valley campaign with a 72-66 victory at Evansville on Dec. 23 as Milik Yarbrough scored 28 points.  After getting to 3-1, the Redbirds lost four of their next five and seemingly were out of title contention.

With games remaining against the teams ahead of them (Loyola, Bradley and Southern Illinois) and the one tied (Drake), the Redbirds could make February interesting before heading to St. Louis for the Valley Tournament on March 1-4.

Hard to believe, but it was less than two weeks ago when Muller lamented about his players getting an overinflated opinion of themselves after a victory.

"I think we're turning the corner in believing and trusting coach and knowing that if we keep listening to him and keep getting stops and defending, we're going to keep winning," said ISU junior Keyshawn Evans. "We're keeping that mindset instead of us worrying about us being good."

The Redbirds' defensive task against the Purple Aces is holding down Taylor. The 6-foot-6 junior guard averages 20.4 points per game and shoots 41 percent outside the arc.

Taylor was in his first game back from a fractured foot when Evansville faced ISU in December. He scored 22 points, but took 22 shots (making 10) and was 0 of 5 on 3-pointers.

"Our lack of length with our best (perimeter) defenders is tough on him," said Muller. "He can shoot over Madison (Williams). He and Matt Hein spent most of the time on him and others spent some time. We're just going to try different guys. If one guy works, he'll probably keep on him for the most part."

Hein knows it's not an easy task chasing Taylor around all the numerous screens the Purple Aces set.

"I have to make sure I contest everything I can and get through those screens," said Hein.

Evansville lost a key player for Saturday's game earlier in the week. Sophomore guard Dru Smith, who leads the Valley in assists and steals while averaging 13.5 points, is out a couple weeks with a foot injury. He also missed the first game against ISU with a foot problem.

Additionally, senior guard Duane Gibson apparently will miss his fifth straight game with a chronic knee injury. Gibson played 37 minutes and scored 10 points on Dec. 23. 

Taste of Redbirds set: The 15th annual Taste of Redbirds will be held at Horton Field House from 12:30-2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Admission to the event is free, with $1 tickets available for food and non-alcoholic beverages. There also will be a beer garden for cash purchases only. Ticket sales begin at 11:30 a.m. on Horton's east side concourse.

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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