NORMAL — Ronnie Carlwell discovered there were no classes Friday at Illinois State after already getting out of bed. The extra sleep would have been nice, he said.
The snow day didn't bother Mike Vandello. The reprieve from his busy Friday schedule of four classes was welcomed by the sophomore forward.
Still, there was an unofficial class that began at 3 p.m. when Carlwell, Vandello and their ISU basketball teammates gathered for practice. It involved chemistry or team bonding or whatever you want to call it.
Right now, all the Redbirds are getting high marks.
ISU's veterans and newcomers have quickly meshed together on - and off - the court. The Redbirds (4-2) shoot for their first five-game winning streak in six seasons today with a 7:05 p.m. game against Texas-Arlington (3-2) at Redbird Arena.
"From last year it's been quite a change because guys had their own groups and did their own thing," said Vandello, referring to a 9-19 campaign. "This year we all just want to be around each other. There is no one left out and everyone feels comfortable with everyone else."
Carlwell and Greg Dilligard have been around the ISU program the longest. Carlwell expected an easy transition after meeting freshmen Osiris Eldridge and Bobby Hill and junior college transfers Boo Richardson, Dom Johnson and Anthony Slack on their recruiting visits last year. Another junior college transfer, Julius Moor, came as a walk-on.
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However, Carlwell admits he thought everything might start clicking in January or February instead of November.
The Redbirds look like they've played together for six months instead of six games.
"This might be the fastest coming together of a team anyone might ever see happening," said Carlwell. "Everyone knows what they can do and what they bring. We're getting better every day."
ISU coach Porter Moser credits seniors Roberto Fortes, Dilligard and Carlwell with checking their egos at the opening tip and allowing their new teammates to be equals.
Fortes came on strong offensively toward the end of last season with two 20-point games. Dilligard was ISU's returning leading scorer and a four-year starter. Carlwell could have wanted more playing time in his last season.
Instead, Fortes has turned into a defensive stopper and "his attitude has been unbelievable," said Moser. "He's positive and he has a bounce in his step and he's our fifth leading scorer."
Moser calls Dilligard "the happiest guy now and he's our fourth leading scorer. He's bouncing around and we're winning. Sometimes when you are the leading scorer in your junior year, your senior year you think you own the world. You don't see that."
The contributions from the 6-foot-11 Carlwell aren't found on any stats sheet.
"He's one of most enthusiastic guys every day in practice. He realizes some games the match-ups for him aren't great," said Moser. "He realizes his role and Ronnie helps chemistry. He's always picking guys up in practice and on the bench he's always enthusiastic. He's a key person on this team."
Moser also added the highly publicized newcomers have been among ISU's hardest workers in practice.
"Everyone knows they're earning their playing time. That helps," said the ISU coach.
Road trips to Florida and New York helped build the camaraderie that began fostering during summer pick-up games on campus.
"We always have each other's back. If anyone slips up or feels down after a play, we're there to pick each other up and encourage each other," said Vandello. "If one guy doesn't play well one night, somebody else will be there."
Carlwell believes going to Tallahassee, Fla., to start the season with three games in the Colonial Classic was invaluable.
ISU learned something after opening with losses to Southern Methodist and host Florida State.
"That brought us together more because we had to stick together. The first loss was kind of hard with that tip in (at the buzzer to SMU)," said Carlwell. "We knew what we had to do to bounce back against Florida State. We came out real strong, and the loss to Florida State brought us together more because we knew what we could do and what we had to do to be successful.
"After that loss it's kind of snowballed and we kept it rolling because we knew we could guard, run and play with the best of them."
A five-game winning streak might not sound like a big deal to other schools in the Missouri Valley Conference such as Creighton or Southern Illinois.
But for these Redbirds, the significance can't be overstated.
"It shows the direction this program is going in and the work ethic and type of guys we're bringing in that contributes to that and how the coaches push us every day in practice," said Vandello.
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Site: Redbird Arena, Normal
Radio: WTRX-FM (93.7); WJBC-AM (1230) takes over at 8 p.m.
Records: Texas-Arlington 3-2; ISU 4-2
Series history: First meeting
Coaches: ISU’s Porter Moser has a 40-53 record in his four seasons and a 94-87 record in seven seasons as a head coach. Texas-Arlington coach Scott Cross is in his first season with the Mavericks.
About the Mavericks: Texas-Arlington was picked to finish fourth in the six-team West Division of the Southland Conference in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll. The Mavericks have no seniors and only three juniors on their 13-player roster. Brandon Long, a sophomore reserve guard who is averaging 2.7 points, is a Thornton High School graduate. Texas-Arlington’s two losses have come at Texas Christian 97-89 in double overtime and 74-73 Monday to Texas-Pan American. The Mavericks’ home game against Austin College Thursday was postponed because of bad weather. Texas-Arlington is shooting 53.4 percent from the field, led by Jermaine Griffin (68.3) and Anthony Vereen (65.2), while averaging 81.6 points.
Next up: ISU meets Miami (Ohio) at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday at Redbird Arena.