Some thoughts after watching Illinois State battle back from a 13-point deficit before losing to Texas Christian, 81-69, on Tuesday night at Schollmaier Arena in Fort Worth, Texas:
NO. 1: BIGS DON'T COME UP BIG
Through eight games, it has become obvious that the Redbirds are lacking consistent production in the front court, especially against some of the physical teams that ISU has faced thus far.
Kevin Samuel, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound sophomore center, was too much for Keith Fisher III or Rey Idowu to handle in the low post. Fisher and Idowu each got into early foul trouble and at one point in the first half, ISU head coach Dan Muller had 6-7 Jaycee Hillsman at the center spot trying to defend Samuel. That didn't turn out well.
Freshman Abdou Ndiaye is simply not strong enough at this point to battle guys like Samuel. Fisher and Idowu have to get better -- and quickly -- in defending physical post players without fouling. There's two games upcoming against Loyola's Cameron Krutwig and Northern Iowa's big guy, Austin Phyfe, is healthy again and a load down low. Plus Gaige Prim of Missouri State is a 250-pound force and won't be pushed around in the post.
Fisher is giving up 25-30 pounds, but just think back three years ago. Deontae Hawkins was a similar build to Fisher. Hawkins turned into a pretty solid post defender that season, which helped ISU share the MVC title. Without Hawkins' defense, that championship wouldn't have happened.
Idowu seems to hold his own against guys his size, but add a couple more inches and it really seems to bother him. Fisher hasn't delivered on the promise that ISU coaches and fans had for him. He admitted last week he was pressing, but he needs to get his game together soon. There aren't any reinforcements coming. Getting Taylor Bruninga healthy would help some, but who knows if that will happen this season.
NO. 2: REEVES AND HORNE COULD BE SPECIAL
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TCU might not be the best team. In fact, the Horned Frogs are picked last in the Big 12 Conference. But TCU does have solid, physical players in most every spot. That makes what ISU freshmen Antonio Reeves and DJ Horne accomplished look very significant.
Reeves and Horne didn't back off. Even when Reeves failed to score in the first half, he didn't sulk but stayed locked in (coach-speak) and came out on fire in the second half. Horne earned his first start in place of Ricky Torres and right away showed he wasn't afraid or nervous. Muller said Horne's defense also was really good, so expect to see him in the starting lineup again at 6 p.m. Saturday when ISU entertains Morehead State at Redbird Arena.
ISU senior guard Zach Copeland said he was proud of how Reeves and Horne played Tuesday. They could easily develop into one of the MVC's best pair of guards in the future. Dedric Boyd didn't play well Tuesday and came up scoreless, but Boyd will be fine. ISU's backcourt potential, especially with 6-5 point guard Howard Fleming Jr. on the way, is very bright.
NO. 3: FIGURE OUT HOW TO START SECOND HALF BETTER
This is becoming a recurring theme, and Dan Muller realizes if the Redbirds don't correct their lackadaisical play to start second halves they're going to have serious problems.
What's the solution? Good question, but right now not a lot of answers. The first possession of the second half Fisher fumbled a pass in the lane, but in his defense it appeared to be at his feet, and TCU seemed a step ahead of the Redbirds until Reeves halted the momentum.
Not to disparage the next four opponents, but the schedule eases up a little bit for the Redbirds before the MVC season begins Dec. 31 against UNI, which looks to be the league's best team, at Redbird Arena.
ISU can't afford to have these lapses coming out of the locker room against the next four opponents. It's time the Redbirds figured out what they need to do before the first media timeout under the 16-minute mark instead of falling behind and having to play catch up.
These next four games are going to set the tone for the rest of the season. ISU needs to become more consistent in several areas heading into the MVC campaign. If the Redbirds only go 2-2 against Morehead State, Northern Kentucky, UIC and Texas-San Antonio, they could be in for a long two months heading into St. Louis.
You don't just flip the switch once conference rolls around. It doesn't work that way.