NORMAL — Paris Lee returns for Illinois State's basketball team after a knee injury scare forced the sophomore point guard to miss Wednesday's victory at Drake.
Slowly, the Redbirds are getting healthier. Whether ISU can take another step and beat a ranked opponent remains to be seen, but another chance comes Sunday.
Northern Iowa, ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, visits Redbird Arena for a 3 p.m. game that will be nationally televised on ESPNU. The Panthers (17-2, 6-1) are a game behind No. 14 Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference standings, with ISU (12-7, 4-3) entering this weekend tied for fourth place.
"This is a great measurement for our team. Northern Iowa has proven itself, and I thought they would," said ISU coach Dan Muller. "I thought we would have two ranked teams this year.
"I guess you could say this is a barometer nationally of where are we. We're at home and this is a great opportunity for us."
UNI has returned to its stingy defensive formula that resulted in league championships in 2009 and 2010.
The Panthers rank No. 6 in the nation and lead the Valley in scoring defense, allowing 54.9 points per game. That figure drops to 49.6 points in Valley games only. UNI also is tops in the league in field goal percentage defense (.380).
UNI coach Ben Jacobson promised a more up-tempo attack last season. However, the Panthers fell to a 16-15 record, its worst season since 2003, and the ninth-year coach urged his team to concentrate on stopping opponents again.
"They understood. The challenge was changing some habits," said Jacobson. "There was nobody in our locker room fighting it. They all understood we needed to make some real improvements on that end of the floor. I think we're getting there."
Muller said "multiple things" account for the Panthers' staunch defense, including their positioning, experience, depth and long possessions on offense which often frustrate the opponent.
"Their transition defense is very, very good and they don't give up many easy baskets," Muller added. "They're way more sound (than last season) and have better depth, so if someone is not guarding they're not playing, and they're way more physical."
The Panthers are the most experienced team in the Valley and led by Seth Tuttle. The 6-foot-8 senior is among six players nationally to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks.
"This is his basketball team. That's well established with our guys and team," said Jacobson.
Lee was slowed down at the end of a win against Bradley eight days ago when he landed awkwardly chasing a loose ball in the final seconds. Lee said he tweaked his left knee and hamstring.
An MRI showed the knee was stable. Lee missed the 64-56 win at Drake, snapping a 51-game starting streak, but returned to practice Friday. Muller said he expects Lee to be in the starting lineup against UNI.
"I did all right (in practice). I was nowhere near my best, but it's just mentally right now," said Lee before Saturday's practice. "Physically I'm good, but mentally I've got to get better. I need to be ready tomorrow."
Muller knows there is a hurdle to clear when returning from an injury.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is just starting to get back in playing shape after missing seven games with a broken bone in his hand. Reggie Lynch was limited for about a month with an ailing lower back. ISU hopes Deontae Hawkins will return soon from a stress reaction in his foot.
"Ninety percent of the time it's mental because your body can do more than you think it can until you push it," said Muller. "Fear and rust and trust all play a factor."