NORMAL — Rick Pitino won the game. Yet the legendary Louisville coach thinks Illinois State’s basketball program is going to be the winner in the long run.
Pitino heaped praise on ISU first-year coach Dan Muller after the fifth-ranked Cardinals slipped past the Redbirds, 69-66, on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
“We’ve all seen Brad Stevens (of Butler) and Shaka (Smart of VCU) the past couple years. That’s one of the brightest first-year coaches I’ve witnessed in a long, long time,” said Pitino. “Everything they do has great spacing to it, they play hard defensively and they’re very smart.
“I’m happy for him. He’s been very patient waiting for a job. That’s one of the bright young stars in our game.”
That is high acclaim coming for someone who is the first coach to take three different schools to the Final Four, earned the 1996 national title with Kentucky and has won 635 games in 28 seasons as a college coach.
Muller, who has guided ISU to a 5-2 record, seemed a little taken back when Pitino’s words were relayed to him.
“That’s very kind of Coach Pitino. He’s one of the best ever,” said the 36-year-old Muller. “I’m a long way away from Brad Stevens, I can say that. I have aspirations to be a good coach, coach players the right way, graduate them and put a product on the court people are excited about.
“I worked under a great guy in Kevin Stallings (at Vanderbilt). I do feel I have an unbelievable staff, and we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Cousin to the rescue: After being a regular in ISU’s rotation the past two seasons, including making 36
starts, senior Anthony Cousin has seen his playing time dramatically decrease this season.
Freshman Kaza Keane emerged as the Redbirds’ starting point guard, with sophomore Johnny Hill being the primary backup. Cousin didn’t even play in two of ISU’s first six games.
However, Cousin was ready against Louisville when called upon. Keane sprained his right ankle in practice Thursday and was ruled out before the game.
Against defensive pressure that ISU has rarely seen, Cousin played 12 minutes with two assists, two rebounds and, more importantly, one turnover.
“I knew I had to come in and play a little bit and show my impact on the team as a senior in a real big game for us,” said Cousin. “I knew I had to step it up.”
Cousin’s teammates applauded his effort, with Tyler Brown saying he came in and “did a great job.”
“I’m not too much concerned with playing time as long as the team is winning,” said Cousin. “Obviously today we did not put it away, but to be on the court was a great feeling. I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team.”
Muller said he anticipates Keane will be ready for Tuesday’s 7:05 p.m. against Wyoming (8-0) at Redbird Arena.
Road tested: One of Muller’s first tasks when he became ISU’s coach in May was to beef up the schedule.
The Redbirds have been up to the task. They pulled out an 86-84 overtime victory at Drexel on Nov. 15 before nearly beating their highest ranked team since 1978 when they downed No. 4 Indiana State and Larry Bird.
“It’s been a confidence builder with two road games in very tough environments. Our players are not going to be scared,” said Muller. “That’s why we played these games and will play Dayton coming up (on Dec. 19).
“It gives me confidence because I know our players can go in anywhere, no matter who we’re playing, and believe in each other and the coaching staff and compete. If we did not play these games going into (Missouri Valley) conference play would it hurt us? I think absolutely.”