This remade Illinois State basketball team will require patience in an impatient world. That was evident Tuesday night in the home opener.
Yet, it was just as clear writing the obituary on this season would be premature, even in a Redbird Arena atmosphere that for a half resembled a wake.
Coach Dan Muller’s team was competitive throughout a 78-70 loss to a veteran Drexel team that lost by five on Friday night at UCLA. There is no tangible reward for that, but when you lost your season opener by 38, it is progress.
The cynical thing is to suggest progress was inevitable given the depth of ISU’s struggles in a 96-58 dismantling at nationally ranked VCU four days earlier. The reality is this game provided something that one did not.
Sure, shot selection was suspect at times. Transition defense lacked on occasion. The shooting percentages were as chilly as the weather outside: 32.3 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3-point range.
You can live with that. With nine players in their first season of Division I basketball, there will be rough stretches, lost possessions.
What mattered is the Redbirds competed. They scrapped. They clawed. And they whittled a double-digit deficit down to six with less than 30 seconds to go.
“It feels good to know that we didn’t stop fighting and we had each other’s backs,” freshman guard Paris Lee said. “Coach Muller always stresses don’t stop playing until you hear the buzzer.”
It was clear those words got through. The Redbirds’ ears perked up after the embarrassment at VCU, their eyes were opened.
Lee, from perennial power Proviso East High School, had fire in his. He comes from a culture of winning, and losing by 38 hurts like crazy.
On Tuesday, he contributed 10 points, two steals and two assists with no turnovers (after having nine at VCU). Yet, afterward he was kicking himself … disappointed he did not do more.
You win with guys like that.
“I honestly feel if I would have done more we could have won,” said Lee, who was 4 of 12 from the field. “There’s never enough for me to do on a court. If there was we would have won.
“But we bounced back and got better tonight. Hopefully we can go to Northwestern on Sunday and get a win. It’s going to be tough, but I think we can do it.”
Indeed, the Redbirds are in a difficult stretch. After Northwestern, they play at home Wednesday against Manhattan, another talented and veteran team.
The reality is ISU could be 0-4. Yet, if Tuesday was an indication, things will get better.
These Redbirds are athletic. They have four, five players who can get to the basket off the dribble. In a season where fouls will be called more closely than ever, that’s a positive.
They showed an ability to get to the free-throw line Tuesday, racking up 35 attempts and making 23 (65.7 percent).
The inside duo of John Jones (12 points, four rebounds) and Michael Middlebrooks (10 points, 15 rebounds) provided a presence in the paint.
None of it means the Redbirds will be cutting down nets anytime soon. It just means they will be worth watching as this season unfolds.
“Once we start finding our roles and players start playing their roles, we’re going to become a dangerous team … I promise, a dangerous team,” Lee said. “I just pray our fans don’t go to sleep on us because we’re coming up.”
They’ll need patience in an impatient world. It’s a lot to ask … but maybe not too much.