Winning at Charles Koch Arena on Sunday will be extremely difficult for Illinois State’s injured-ravaged team.
Competing should not be as difficult.
ISU coach Dan Muller was disappointed in his team’s overall competitive level during Wednesday’s 63-61 home loss to Indiana State that was the Missouri Valley Conference opener. Another effort like that against Wichita State will produce a 20-point loss.
“We had a number of moments with guys, for stretches of the game, where we didn’t compete hard enough. Absolutely,” said Muller this week before ISU left for Wichita, Kan. “Whether it’s sprinting back in transition or being tough enough with the ball offensively to execute and shooting their shots the right way …”
Freshman forward MiKyle McIntosh acknowledged the Redbirds play harder on the road than they do at home. That is something that must be corrected beginning with Wednesday’s 7 p.m. game against Drake at Redbird Arena.
But, first, the Redbirds are going to have to find out how to be competitive against Wichita State. These aren’t the same Shockers who ran roughshod over the Valley last season and were 35-0 and No. 2 in the national polls before losing a classic two-point NCAA tournament game against Kentucky.
Wichita State is trying to figure out how to compensate for the loss of standout forward Cleanthony Early (now with the New York Knicks) and a couple big guys underneath. The Shockers still have an outstanding backcourt of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton. These guys are mentally tough and know how to win, which is evident by one-point victories against Alabama and Hawaii when the Shockers weren't playing their best.
It would have been fun to see how the Redbirds stacked up against the Shockers with a healthy lineup. But that won’t be the case Sunday.
Forward Deontae Hawkins could only play four minutes against Indiana State before his left foot, which has a stress reaction that knocked him out of the previous three games, began to hurt. Center Reggie Lynch has a sore lower back that limited him to 14 minutes. DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who gave ISU a different dimension on the wing this season, suffered a broken right hand against DePaul on Dec. 14 and will be sidelined for a while longer.
It seems logical that Hawkins could miss the next several games. Lynch seems to have a better chance of playing Sunday, but anyone who has a lower back injury knows how tough it is to walk down the street, let alone play a Division I basketball game. Muller didn’t rule either player out Sunday, but couldn’t say whether they would play, either.
ISU still has enough depth this season, even without some of its better players, to beat most Valley teams and be competitive against anyone, anywhere.
How some of ISU’s new players this season like McIntosh, Justin McCloud and Will Ransom handle the rowdy atmosphere at Koch Arena will be interesting to see.
“They’ll have a home court advantage …. But if you worry about things you can’t control, there’s no use in it,” said Muller. “You just try to get them prepared for it. Whether it’s educating them or showing them film in practice just to get guys mentally prepared for a tough environment and make them understand those fans won’t be coming on the court. It will be five on five.”
Wichita State didn’t play well on Wednesday against one of the Valley’s bottom feeders, Drake, but managed to pull out a 66-58 victory in Des Moines.
There should be a lesson learned in that for every Valley team.
“Every team that wins consistently in a conference has to play with a great toughness. We did not do that Wednesday,” said Muller. “It will take that on Sunday for us to have a chance to be successful.”