VALPARAISO, Ind. — For Illinois State's basketball team, a new year means a new start. The same goes for the Redbirds' opponent in Wednesday's Missouri Valley Conference opener.
ISU and Valparaiso both struggled to 7-6 records during the nonconference season. The Redbirds, picked second in the preseason MVC poll, expected much more with four starters returning but were not competitive in several games, including a 77-56 loss to Central Florida in their last game on Dec. 21.
After taking five days off for the Christmas break, ISU hopes those tough nonconference lessons pay off when it takes on Valparaiso at 7 p.m. at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
“This break has been really good,” said ISU senior Phil Fayne. “These two-a-days (practices starting Thursday) that we've been having have been real good. We're learning a lot and improving on offense and defense and getting closer and having a lot of cohesion and everything.”
ISU coach Dan Muller said the Redbirds returned from the break with “good attitudes and focus. Usually that first practice back is really sloppy, but it wasn't. I'm not saying it was sharp, but you could tell guys came back with a mindset that we have to get better.”
The good news for ISU is all 16 players on the roster practiced together Monday for the first time this season. That included sophomore forward Taylor Bruninga, who hasn't played yet with a stress fracture in his left foot.
Muller said Bruninga will be in uniform against Valpo, but isn't sure if he'll play.
“He's on an extreme time limit, between 30 minutes and an hour a day (in practice),” said Muller. “You have to remember he's been out five months. You don't jump in and know the plays and rotations ... at this point you don't want any setbacks. That foot can digress. You have to be careful.”
Fayne, who has been the Redbirds' most consistent player, knows ISU must “tighten up our defense” during MVC action. The Redbirds are allowing 77.7 points per game, while opponents are shooting 44.3 percent from the field and own a plus-2.5 rebounding margin.
“A lot of it starts with effort on our part and after effort it's knowing rotations and everything,” said Fayne, who has scored in double figures in all but one game. “We have to put more into it as we have during this break. The coaches have been on us a lot about defense.”
ISU's defense has shown signs of improvement in the last couple games. However, the offense has struggled with turnovers and 3-point shooting.
“Defense is more important as far as consistency and winning championships, but you've got to be good offensively, too,” said Muller. “I really believe (the last three games) we're getting good shots. You've got to judge your offense based on the quality of your shots more so than you're makes or misses. All you can do is get good shots.
“We've got a bunch of really good shooters who just aren't shooting it great yet. We're overdue.”
Valpo, which was seventh in the MVC preseason poll, could say the same thing. Outside of Ryan Fazekas, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who transferred from Providence, the Crusaders are shooting 29.2 percent outside the arc. Fazekas ranks third in the MVC with 36 3-pointers while hitting 41.3 percent.
All five Valpo starters are averaging in double figures, led by Fazekas' 12.9 average.
“He's a big-time shooter,” said Muller of Fazekas. “He has good length and is experienced and gives them a guy at the 4 (power forward) who can really shoot it. He's dangerous.”
Valpo is 4-2 at home, but has lost its last two games at the Athletics-Recreation Center to Division I opponents (High Point and Ball State). This would seem to be a good spot for the Redbirds to notch their first road win of the season, but ISU has lost its three road games by average margin of 17 points.
Muller said he tells the Redbirds every year the conference portion of the schedule is a new start. The chance to wipe the slate clean after the way the first 13 games have gone for ISU is particularly welcomed this season.
“Let's forget about the negative things we've had in nonconference while still learning from them and play with confidence, and also have the urgency to understand this is a new start and we can't wait another two weeks,” said Muller.