NORMAL — Getting to play on national television is always exciting. Yet it might have better served Illinois State's basketball team to have an extra day to rest and prepare for Evansville than be seen on ESPN2.
The fifth game in a 13-day stretch for ISU could physically be the most taxing.
Not only do the Redbirds have to figure out how to handle the Valley's best big man, 6-foot-10 Egidijus Mockevicius, but Evansville's motion offense for Friday's 8 p.m. Missouri Valley Conference game at Redbird Arena can leave opponents gasping for air.
"It may affect us a little bit offensively because we could be tired chasing all those screens and shooting the gap and all that stuff," said ISU guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell.
This will be ISU's first MVC regular-season game on a Friday since Jan. 13, 2012 against Creighton.
Evansville (15-3, 4-1 MVC), behind the Valley's top inside-outside duo of Mockevicius and D.J. Balentine, has emerged as a threat to Wichita State in the league. The Purple Aces went on the road and battled the Shockers close before falling, 67-64, on Jan. 6.
Balentine again leads the Valley with a 20.9 scoring average. But it is Mockevicius who has taken another leap forward this season. Not only is the Lithuanian averaging 17.3 points (up from last year's 12.5), but he is the nation's leading rebounder with a 14.0 mark.
ISU (9-9, 3-2) doesn't have a true post defender to go against Mockevicius like it did last year with Reggie Lynch and John Jones when the Redbirds beat the Aces three times.
"We've done pretty well against bigs this year, bigger than us," said ISU coach Dan Muller. "We know we have to send help at times. The thing that makes Big E so good is he's so smart.
"He understands when to slip and when to post. Obviously, he's great on the boards. He keeps constant pressure on you at the rim at both ends."
Mockevicius has recorded 14 double-double games this season, tied for third in the nation. That included a 21-point, 21-rebound effort against Missouri State.
"I just think more than anything it's experience, maturity, confidence," said Evansville coach Marty Simmons of Mockevicius' improvement. "He has been that way every year here. He's gotten better. His effort has been otustanding."
Muller said he knew when the schedule came out this was going to be a difficult stretch for the Redbirds. That was before some illnesses and injuries caught up to ISU.
Freshman forward Roland Griffin has missed the last three games with a sprained big toe. Muller is hopeful Griffin will be available Friday.
David Ndiaye, a 7-foot freshman, hasn't played the last four games. Muller disclosed Thursday that Ndiaye has a stress fracture in his foot that has limited his practice time.
Muller doesn't want excuses, but he believes fatigue could be catching up to his team. ISU has lost double-digit leads in the last two games, falling to Indiana State and Southern Illinois while giving up 49 and 45 points in the second half, respectively.
Evansville leads the Valley with a 79.4 scoring average and ranks No. 3 nationally in field goal percentage at .523.
"Fatigue is causing us not only to give up some baskets, but we've fouled down the stretch in both games way too much," said Muller. "We've played guys a lot of minutes in the second half and last 10 minutes of games because of injury, foul trouble or guys not playing well."
However, Akoon-Purcell doesn't believe fatigue is the reason for the two recent losses.
"We talked, even when we were winning games, about closing the games the right way," he said. "I feel like toward the end we've shown a lack of focus and discipline to finish our games up. We feel sometimes we get a lead and get comfortable and relax, which we have to stop."