ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Hein returned to his hometown Thursday to find heavy rain awaiting his arrival. Yet nothing was about to dampen his enthusiasm.
The last two weeks have been a whirlwind for Hein. Now, Illinois State's redshirt junior guard would like to top it off with a victory before going to sleep in his own bed.
ISU (7-5) finishes up the nonconference portion of its schedule with definitely its “biggest” challenge. The Redbirds face 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and Central Florida (9-2) at 6 p.m. Friday at CFE Arena.
“There's going to be a bunch of people there for me, but it's another game and a game we have to win,” said Hein, who graduated from Windermere Prep in suburban Windermere and expects to have a personal cheering section of between 20 and 30 watching.
About 10 days ago, Hein learned he was accepted into the MBA program at ISU beginning in January after earning his bachelor's degree in business management in 3½ years. He couldn't take part in winter commencement exercises because of practice and a community service project going on at the same time on Saturday.
However, Hein's coaches and teammates made sure there was a celebration.
“Coach (Dan) Muller took me over and we talked quickly, then all of a sudden all the players came up from behind me and drenched me with water,” said Hein, smiling. “They got me pretty good.”
The next day, Hein returned to action after missing seven games with a leg strain. He didn't play until the second half, but was on the court down the stretch in regulation and overtime as the Redbirds rallied to beat Cleveland State, 88-77.
Hein didn't take a shot or score a point. But he had two assists in 15 minutes and provided a defensive impetus that was needed, especially against Cleveland State's Rashad Williams who made seven 3-pointers. Afterward, Muller said ISU would not have won without Hein's contribution.
“Matt's defense was terrific,” said Muller. “He stayed ready and really guarded.”
Hein wasn't sure if Muller would call on him during the game, so playing a role in the outcome “meant a lot” to him.
“Any time you go out with an injury and coming back you have to get chemistry with your team,” said Hein. “I wanted to do everything I could. I came back a little tentative because I hadn't been in game action in quite a while.”
Staying prepared could be Hein's motto. It explains how he was able to get his degree in 3½ years despite the heavy demands of being a Division I athlete.
“Taking extra courses and dedication,” said Hein in explaining how he accomplished the feat. “Like in basketball where there is dedication to your craft, there's dedication to school. Every day is a process.”
After the game against UCF, Hein will take the 45-minute drive home with his parents, Todd and Maritte, until returning to campus Wednesday to get ready for the Missouri Valley Conference opener on Jan. 2 at Valparaiso.
Muller still isn't sure how his rotation will shake out with Hein returning. The ISU coach wants to use an eight-man rotation, and sometimes nine, meaning there will be nights when a couple players don't see action.
Sophomore forward Taylor Bruninga (stress fracture) still isn't available for UCF. The Redbirds could use any kind of size going up against Fall and the Knights' huge front line.
The intimidation factor of playing against Fall, a senior from Senegal who weighs 310 pounds, should be lessened. Phil Fayne and Keyshawn Evans faced Fall and UCF in a National Invitation Tournament second-round game two years ago at Redbird Arena when the Knights rallied from an 18-point deficit to edge ISU, 63-62.
“I tell you this: No matter how much you prepare for him, you cannot simulate the size. It's literally impossible,” said Muller. “The fact we had some guys on the court with him, and even Milik (Yarbrough) on the sidelines, just seeing him in person I think can help. We'll see.”
Muller believes UCF has been able to take huge early leads in most games this season as opponents have a difficult time adjusting to Fall's immense stature.
“It's amazing after watching five or six starts of their games, teams don't score against them,” said Muller. “It takes some time to get over that shock, I think … I know we can't go out there and take 10 minutes to figure out what shots to shoot and how to make shots. They're great defensively, even without him.”
UCF holds opponents to 38.2 percent from the field, which ranks No. 25 in the country. Fall is third nationally with 3.5 blocks per game. Muller said the Knights will have two bigs on the court most of the time with a combination of Fall; 6-11, 240-pound sophomore Collin Smith; and 6-9, 245-pound senior Chad Brown.
The Knights were picked to win the American Athletic Conference in the preseason coaches' poll. Senior guard B.J. Taylor, who made two free throws in the closing seconds to beat ISU in the NIT, was named the league's Preseason Player of the Year. Taylor is coming off a career-high 35-point effort in a 90-65 win over Stetson on Sunday.
“What they are is just different. Sometimes different is good,” said Muller. “They're a very good team, but you factor in the different part (with Fall) and I think it will be the most difficult team we've played against.”