The first week of conference season always leaves people guessing? How has each team’s non-conference schedule prepared them for Valley games? What players are excelling entering conference play? How do the pundits’ early season projections shaping up?
Questions surrounded both Creighton and Illinois State entering this season. The Bluejays were asking how things would go with a new coach and how would the addition of Gregory Echenique at mid-season change things. The Redbirds, on the other hand, knew that they needed to replace three key starters that made Illinois State a contender the past few seasons. Both teams have had their ups and downs.
Illinois State has had Creighton’s number since Tim Jankovich became the Redbird’s head coach, winning 7 of the past 8 meetings between the two teams. Osiris Eldridge was a huge reason for a lot of those wins. But he is now over in Europe and the Redbirds have a whole new look. To give us a little more information about how different things are for Illinois State, we turned to the Bloomingon Pantagraph’s Jim Benson to help us figure out who the new faces are on the court.
White & Blue Review: This Redbird team had a lot of key players to replace this season. Has Coach Jankovich found the new core of players to build around? Who is the emergent leader of the team this season?
Jim Benson: Jankovich has experimented throughout the non-conference schedule with different combinations. Like Creighton, he had to wait for a key player to become eligible. John Wilkins sat out the first five games for an NCAA suspension for playing in a Belgium pro league when he was 16 before becoming eligible on November 28. In the last two games, ISU has finally hit on a lineup going forward. Jankovich has put 6-7 redshirt freshman Jon Ekey at small forward. Ekey started the first four games at power forward. With Ekey at the 3 (small forward) and Wilkins at the 4 (power forward), ISU has its biggest and most athletic front line in Jankovich’s four years as coach. The defense has been stellar the last two games. The offense is still a work in progress and would be helped by better perimeter shooting from the guards.
It seems that Alex Rubin might be emerging as the team leader. Rubin will be starting at point guard after playing off guard most of his three previous seasons. He isn’t a flashy player, but he doesn’t turn the ball over and usually is a reliable defender. Rubin will have his hands full on Wednesday with Antoine Young.
WBR: What kind of expectations do Redbird fans have for this year? What is needed to get over that conference hump keeping them from the NCAA Tournament?
JB: I believe most ISU fans see this as a transition year. Gone are two stalwarts of the program — Osiris Eldridge and Dinma Odiakosa — and in place are a talented, but young, group of players. If ISU could finish in the upper half of the Valley this season, that would be a good accomplishment.
The next two seasons is when the Redbirds can realistically shoot for the NCAA Tournament. Jackie Carmichael, Ekey, Justin Clark, and Wilkins will be seasoned veterans. There is a good group of freshmen coming in led by point guard Nic Moore of Warsaw, Indiana, who could be Mr. Basketball in Indiana this season. He is averaging about 34 points a game. He could be the missing piece.
WBR: Illinois State has not had the toughest non-conference schedule the past few seasons. This season the strength of schedule is sitting at 331. What has kept Illinois State from trying to get into the multitude of neutral court tournaments now available to get some games against the power conferences?
JB: The schedule has been the most frustrating part for ISU fans. Here’s my take: Jankovich likes to play home games. He also won’t do guarantee games. I have questioned why ISU doesn’t get into a quality exempt tournament instead of hosting three cupcakes at Thanksgiving at Redbird Arena, as it has done the last three years. It appears an end is in sight. ISU is waiting to sign a contract to play in the Cancun Challenge before Thanksgiving next season. ISU would play Rutgers in the first game and if it wins probably Illinois in the title game. ISU also needs to beef up its non-conference games. Ohio was a good opponent the last two years (beating ISU both times), although not exactly a big-name team. Getting a team like Temple, Butler, etc., would be nice.
WBR: Has the schedule this season helped this team get ready for conference play?
JB: Actually, the schedule was probably set up perfect this season for an inexperienced team. They were definitely not ready to play anyone of a high quality on the road early as they got to know their strengths and weaknesses. They lost at Arkansas-Little Rock on November 21 and won at UNC Wilmington last time out on December 20. There was a huge difference in those two games as far as maturity. ISU is probably as ready as it could be for Valley play with this group.
WBR: With all of the new players on the court for the Redbirds this season, who do the Bluejays need to look out for that could surprise them?
JB: A week ago I would have said Ekey, but he erupted for 22 points and 12 rebounds in the UNCW game so Creighton is well aware of him. I believe Wilkins is a possible MVC Player of the Year in the future. He’s almost 6-10 and stretches defenses because of his 3-point shooting. When he learns to take the ball hard at the defense, he will be a nightmare. There are not many players in the Valley at that size who can do the things he does. Wilkins is progressing at a quicker rate than maybe expected and could be a stud by the end of this season.
WBR: What are the Redbirds still working on that Creighton could exploit?
JB: The Redbirds’ outside shooting from the guards has been bad. Until Rubin, Clark, and Austin Hill start making defenses respect their perimeter games, defenses can sag off inside against Carmichael and Tony Lewis. Clark, in particular, has really struggled again this season. He had his best game shooting last year against Creighton at Redbird Arena, so maybe that will happen again.
WBR: Illinois State has won 7 out of the last 8 meetings between the two teams. What has been key to the success against the Bluejays?
JB: The key has been Osiris Eldridge. Something about Creighton blue made Eldridge turn it up another notch. If he could have played against other Valley teams like he did against Creighton, he would have been a multiple MVC Player of the Year. Dana Altman had nightmares about Eldridge. With both gone, it will be interesting to see if ISU still has Creighton’s number.
WBR: What does the return of Greg McDermott to the Valley mean to the league?
JB: I didn’t cover the Valley when Greg McDermott was at UNI, but from what I understand he’s a strong fundamental coach who does nothing but add to the league. If Doug McDermott was at UNI this year, the Panthers might be considered co-favorites with Wichita State. I’m looking forward to seeing the McDermotts the next four seasons.
WBR: For those who have not been out to Normal before, where is a good place to go before the game?
JB: Right down the street from Redbird Arena is Avantis, known for good, cheap sandwiches and pasta. If you want to venture down the road a couple miles into downtown Bloomington, Lucca Grill is a local hangout that has good pizza and other eats where you can get a cold one for a decent price.
WBR: What are your final predictions? Who will get off on the right foot in conference play?
JB: Oh, boy. Just because it is in Normal, I will say ISU 65, Creighton 63. It’s really a coin flip. If the game were in Omaha, I would give Creighton a 69-61 edge. The Bluejays haven’t won away from the Qwest Center, so that’s really the only difference right now. But Gregory Echenique could easily swing Wednesday’s game in the Bluejays’ favor.