NORMAL — David Ndiaye returned to Illinois State's basketball team from a stress fracture right before Missouri Valley Conference play began last season. He fit right in as it almost seemed like he was never gone.
A stress fracture on Ndiaye's other foot caused him to miss the Redbirds' first 13 games this season. While the 7-foot junior from Senegal started in his third game Sunday during ISU's 72-68 victory over Missouri State, Ndiaye realizes he has a ways to go.
"I feel I need to get back in shape," he said.
The sooner the better for the Redbirds, who are in desperate need of more rebounding help. Another Valley team just getting healthy, Loyola, takes on ISU at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Redbird Arena.
ISU (9-7, 3-1) is tied for second place with Missouri State in the MVC, a game behind Drake.
Loyola (12-4, 2-2) is coming off a 56-50 victory at Northern Iowa on Sunday when point guard Clayton Custer returned after missing five games with an ankle injury. The Ramblers were picked third in the MVC preseason poll, just ahead of ISU.
"I'm excited because I think we have a high ceiling ahead of us," said Loyola coach Porter Moser. "I thought we were playing really well early. Clayton went down and we've tried to piecemeal this thing together."
Loyola, which upset then No. 5-ranked Florida, 65-59, on Dec. 6 for the Valley's signature win of the nonconference season, also was without senior guard Ben Richardson for 10 games with a broken hand.
Richardson has started the last three games. Last year at Redbird Arena, Richardson's shot from just inside the halfcourt line rimmed out at the buzzer as ISU held on for a 65-63 victory.
"They're so solid defensively, good on the boards even though they're not the biggest team and offensively they're unbelievably efficient," said Muller of the Ramblers, who lead the Valley in field goal percentage (.499) and are second in 3-point field goal percentage (.481) while averaging 13.7 turnovers.
ISU ranks last in the league — and 335th out of 351 Division I teams — in rebounding margin at minus 7.2. That almost killed the Redbirds in the second half against Missouri State as the Bears owned a 24-10 advantage on the boards.
"One guy in particular decided not to rebound all day who needs to rebound for us," said Muller. "Even on film, the first half compared to the second half, the rebounding effort, energy and focus was like night and day. We stopped focusing on it. When we stop focusing on rebounding, we're really bad."
Ndiaye said he is one of ISU's players who has "got to rebound better." He grabbed just one rebound to go with two points in eight minutes on Sunday.
Muller said the Redbird coaches are working extra with Ndiaye outside of practice to get him back in shape and playing like he was before being sidelined.
"Confidence is such a big thing. Last year he came back and did great and really fit in," said Muller. "But his role is so much different and the expectations. Every year is different. I thought by now he would be a little further than he is coming back, but that's OK. It's not because he doesn't want to. He's worked really hard."
Ndiaye contributed a career-high eight points and seven rebounds four days earlier against Drake.
"It was a good feeling, but I have a lot more to do," he said.
Ndiaye could find himself matched against Loyola's Cameron Krutwig, a leading candidate for MVC Freshman of the Year. The 6-9, 260-pound Krutwig gives the Ramblers much more than just size in the middle.
"That kid is a heck of a player and has such good hands and he's such a good passer," said Muller. "They can all shoot it around him."
This will be Loyola's first look at Milik Yarbrough. The Redbirds' junior forward ranks second in the Valley in scoring (17.9 points) and assists (4.5).
Moser said Yarbrough reminds him in many ways of former Rambler guard Milton Doyle, who is now with the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.
"Obviously he's effective scoring ... but his passing scares you because he can find open guys," said Moser, a former ISU coach who is 0-4 at Redbird Arena since the Ramblers joined the league in 2013.