WICHITA, Kan. — MiKyle McIntosh said road games “are a lot more fun to me” than home games.
Going into the toughest place to play in the Missouri Valley Conference, Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller probably doesn’t mind hearing that. However, it won’t be much fun for Muller if the 6-foot-7, 235-pound freshman forward is sitting next to him on the Redbird bench with foul trouble.
With the availability of Deontae Hawkins (foot) and Reggie Lynch (back) in question for Sunday’s 4:30 p.m. nationally televised ESPNU game against No. 16-ranked Wichita State at Charles Koch Arena, ISU needs McIntosh more than ever against the Shockers.
“His fouls have hurt us. But that’s a credit to his play,” said Muller. “If you would have said that a month ago, people would have thought you were crazy. But he’s come along at a really good rate.”
Lynch could only play 14 minutes, while Hawkins was used just four minutes in Wednesday’s 63-61 loss to Indiana State to begin the Valley season. McIntosh finished with 11 points and five rebounds in 24 minutes, but had to sit out the final 10:51 of the first half with two fouls.
McIntosh got off to a slow start after sitting out last season, scoring 12 points in the first six games. But in the last seven games for the Redbirds (8-5), McIntosh has averaged 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds.
“It’s really hard. I like going in for rebounds and pushing people around, and I usually go to the basket a lot and people try to take charges,” said McIntosh. “It’s hard to find a medium between them. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (broken hand) remains out indefinitely for ISU. If Hawkins and Lynch also can’t play that makes the Redbirds extremely small, especially if McIntosh has foul trouble.
“It goes back to you take away what has been a (team) strength of rebounding, and you lose two or three of your best rebounders and MiKyle becomes more important,” said Muller. “We have to help him learn how to not foul more.”
McIntosh’s two best scoring efforts came during back-to-back road games last month at Alabama-Birmingham (18 points) and DePaul (14).
This will be McIntosh’s first time at Koch Arena, where a crowd of 10,000-plus dressed in black and gold isn’t too friendly to visiting teams. McIntosh has heard a couple stories from his older teammates, but he’s eager for the challenge.
“It is fun (on the road), especially when you do well you smirk at them and give smiles because you know how upset they are and how big of fans they are. It’s pretty fun,” he said.
ISU has gone 4-2 away from Redbird Arena, including 2-1 on opponents’ home courts, but just 4-3 at home.
“The team puts a lot more effort on the road, but we also should at home,” said McIntosh.
While Wichita State (10-2) isn’t quite as dominant as it was while winning 35 straight games to start last season and climbing to No. 2 in the polls, the Shockers remain heavy favorites to win a second straight Valley title.
Wichita State struggled in its league opener. The Shockers led Drake by four points late before Ron Baker led the way to a 66-58 victory.
“We were lucky to get out of here with a win,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall after his team’s 19th straight Valley victory in Des Moines, Iowa.
Baker, a 6-3 junior guard, scored 15 of the Shockers’ last 18 points in the final 8:19. He finished with 23 points and paces Wichita State with a 17.1 average.
While Baker and fellow guards Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton form one of the nation’s best backcourts, the Shockers suffered some heavy losses from last year’s squad.
Not only is Cleanthony Early now playing in the NBA, but Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Colby supplied muscle inside while reserve Nick Wiggins was an instant 3-point threat.
“People think their bigs weren’t a major factor and Wiggins off the bench at 6-6 wasn’t a factor. Obviously Early was their biggest loss as far as personnel, but they have five returners and everyone else is new,” said Muller.
“They still are very good clearly. They’ve beaten some very good teams, but they’re much different than last year as are most teams.”
ISU has lost 11 of its last 12 games against Wichita State and hasn’t won at Koch Arena since 2008.