In 1977, Creighton re-entered the Missouri Valley Conference after 29 years as an independent, and over the proceeding three decades, no team has been more of a thorn in the Jays’ sides than Illinois State. The Redbirds joined the MVC shortly after (in 1981) and have won 40 of the 64 meetings since. Most astonishingly, Creighton did not win a regular season game in Normal, IL until February of 2000 — after dropping their first 11 in Redbird Arena and their first 18 overall (though they did win an MVC Tournament game there in 1984, back when the tourney was played at campus sites).
Even that win in 2000 was tough-as-heck to get. Ben Walker had a then-career-high 28 points, including 20 in the second half, and made all 12 of his free throw attempts while also grabbing six rebounds; Nerijus Karlikanovas had 17 points and six rebounds off the bench; Ryan Sears had 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals; and in his first career start, Kyle Korver scored all 15 of his points in the second half. Yet against the pesky Redbirds, it still almost wasn’t enough. Tarise Bryson had 31 for Illinois State in another maddening performance against the Jays, who escaped with an 86-83 win.
So if you’re frustrated by the Jays dropping seven of their last eight games to the Redbirds, know this: the Redbirds have been frustrating generations of Jays fans for as long as they’ve been playing. Its what they do. Before Osiris Eldridge and Dinma Odiakosa, there was Shawn Jeppson and Tarise Bryson, who were good players that became superhuman against Creighton. Before them, there was Rico Hill, who before being drafted in the NBA made sure Rodney Buford never won an MVC Player of the Year award by being just *that* much better time after time.
The Redbirds won 6 of the teams’ first 7 matchups, prevailed in 7 in a row between 1985 and 1988, took two out of three from the Jays 1989-90 team including a crushing loss in the MVC Tournament that cost them a chance at a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, won 10 in a row between 1993 and 1999, and now, have won 7 of the last 8 including a crushing loss in the 2009 MVC Tournament that cost them a chance at an NCAA Tournament bid. Its madness.
And so, tonight, the Jays begin the conference season in a place where they’ve rarely won against an opponent they’ve rarely beaten with any regularity. Fortunately, Osiris Eldridge and his “O” Hawk are no longer around to torment the Jays, who only beat him twice in their nine meetings while seeing him have career games against them nearly every time out. Neither is Dinma Odiakosa, their bruising interior player who beat up Kenny Lawson in their meetings, nor Lloyd Phillips, who made huge shots against the Jays in his career. In their place is a talented group of newcomers surrounding the returning veterans, which include Jackie Carmichael and Alex Rubin.
Carmichael was a member of the MVC All-Freshman team a year ago, when he averaged 6.8 points and 4 rebounds a game. In his two meetings with the Jays, he was mostly ineffective: he had 2 points and 2 rebounds in 10 minutes in the first matchup in Normal, and 2 points with 1 rebound in 10 minutes in the rematch in Omaha. Rubin has also struggled against the Jays, finishing below his season averages in points, assists and rebounds in each of his past five matchups against them.
Rubin has shifted to the point guard as a senior after three years playing primarily at the off-guard, and as Jim Benson of the Bloomington Pantagraph told us, he may not be flashy but he’s solid.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Jon Ekey and fellow newcomer John Wilkins anchor a front court that many around the program say is the most athletic in Coach Tim Jankovich’s four years. Its certainly his biggest. Ekey exploded with 22 points and 12 rebounds in a road win over UNC-Wilmington last week, and the 6’7″ forward enters MVC play having shown solid improvement every game. After sitting out the first five games due to a suspension for playing professionally in his native France, Wilkins is struggling to put things together in his freshman year, but at 6’10″ and 225, his ability to shoot the three-pointer can stretch defenses. Many around the league think he has MVC Player of the Year type talent once he develops. One other thing to keep in mind: Ekey and Carmichael have 17 blocks apiece to share the MVC lead, so the pump fake needs to be in the arsenal of every Jays shooter tonight.
Unlike recent seasons, they do not make three-pointers with any efficiency. In fact, they’re even worse than Creighton is, if you can believe that! The Redbirds have made just 29.1% of their shots from long range, and really have no one shooter that scares opponents from out there. Rubin is 10-31 for the season, Ekey is 7-19, Wilkins is 9-23, and Trey Blue is 9-29. None shoot higher than 36%, and none shoot enough attempts to make you quiver with fear at their exploits.
That’s why — beyond the Redbirds youth and inexperience and lack of the “O” Hawk — the Jays might well be able to go in and get a win tonight. If it comes down to a battle of big men, I like Kenny Lawson and Gregory Echenique over Ekey and Wilkins. And the Jays, despite their struggles from behind the arc, do have one shooter that if he gets hot can swing a game in Ethan Wragge. Play defense like they did in the two of the three games to close out the non-conference slate, win the rebound battle, make a few threes, and the Jays likely win the game.
About the Redbirds: Over the last four seasons, Illinois State has won more overall games (79) than another other Valley school, yet have zero NCAA Tournament bids to show for it … Since joining the Valley in 1981-82, the Redbirds are 14-15 in league openers; Prior to victories in each of the three conference openers under Tim Jankovich, ISU had lost eight-straight conference openers … In his first two games, Wilkins combined to score a total of six points, but in his last four contests Wilkins is averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while shooting a combined 8-for-16 (.500) from three … Illinois State leads the Missouri Valley Conference with 12.2 offensive rebounds per game, thanks in large part to the league’s individual leader Tony Lewis and his 3.1 offensive caroms per contest. However, due to their poor shooting, ISU is only averaging 9.8 second-chance points per game, less than one point per offensive rebound on the season … The Redbirds have had nine different players start for five different starting five combinations through eleven games … Austin Hill leads the Redbirds in both scoring (11.2 ppg.) and assists (22), and if he could maintain his team lead in both categories, he would become only the third Redbird in the NCAA Division I era to lead the team in both scoring and assists, along with Vince Greene (2002-03) and Tarise Bryson (1999-2000) … Illinois State is the youngest team in the MVC and the 23rd youngest in all of Division 1 … Their non-conference strength of schedule is a horrid 330 as Jankovich once again fattened up on wins against wildly inferior opponents, and played away from Redbird Arena just twice.
One Big Paragraph with Lots O’Dots™: Creighton will play its first game after the Christmas break on the road for the first time since Dec. 30, 1998 –every year since then, Creighton has played at home on Dec. 28, 29 or 30 … Creighton is 4-6 in the last 11 years in its first road game after December 25th; each of the last four years, that has consisted of a trip to Indiana State … During their careers Creighton seniors Kenny Lawson Jr., Casey Harriman and Kaleb Korver have beaten every MVC team, both at home and on the road, with the exception of a road triumph over Illinois State in Normal … Illinois State has outrebounded foes by 4.4 boards per game this year, while Creighton is +3.2 on the glass … Creighton has four players currently averaging in double-figures: Antoine Young (13.4), Doug McDermott (12.6), Kenny Lawson Jr. (11.7) and Gregory Echenique (11.3), something that hasn’t happened over the course of a season since the 2000-01 team got double-digit scoring from Kyle Korver (14.6), Ben Walker (12.3), Ryan Sears (11.0) and Terrell Taylor (10.4); That team finished 24-8 overall and is the program’s last to win an MVC outright regular-season title … Creighton is 1-5 in their last six MVC road openers, though three of those were decided at the buzzer … Creighton owns a 9-3 record in the previous 12 MVC openers, and is 30-21 all-time in such games … The Jays are 3-3 all-time when opening league play against Illinois State, and interestingly, all of those games were contested in Omaha … Since 1993-94, only one team (Northern Iowa, a 2008-09 co-champion) has won at least a share of the regular-season title without winning its regular-season opener. In fact, 15 of the last 16 regular-season champs (or co-champs) have opened 2-0 or better in MVC play, with UNI in 2008-09 once again serving as the exception.
The Last Time They Played: Illinois State won 67-63 in Omaha last February 13, placing five men in double-figures and holding Creighton to one field goal in the final 8:57. The first half featured six ties and six lead changes before Osiris Eldridge drained a long three-pointer with less than a second left in the half. Creighton took a 53-50 lead with 8:58 to play, but then went cold, making just one of its final seven attempts. ISU answered with the next six points to go ahead by three points, and extended it to a 12-2 run when Dinma Odiakosa scored inside with 3:47 to play giving ISU its largest lead of the day at 62-55, one they would not relinquish.
The Series: Illinois State leads 40-24, and has a 24-6 record against the Jays in Normal. Despite losing seven of the last eight, the Jays have still won 16 of the last 26 due to their dominance earlier in the decade.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott has won five straight meetings to improve to 7-4 all-time against Illinois State, and is 3-2 in Normal, but has never coached against Tim Jankovich. Jankovich is 6-1 against Creighton.
Gratuitous Linkage: Tonight is being promoted as “Rock The Arena” night, and with $5 tickets, it should be full — and loud — though both of those are nothing new for games between the Jays and Redbirds. As part of the promotion, though, former Redbird player Brett Gillan and his band Brushfire will provide the in-game entertainment. Gillan played sparingly from 1999-2003, scoring a total of 12 points in his career, so you’re not alone if you have no recollection of him. Any WBR readers who are at the game tonight (I know there’s at least a couple), please report back with comments on how this band during the game thing works! I’m curious.
Out of Context Simpsons quote: “Don’t kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about!” -Troy McClure
This Date in Creighton Hoops History: On December 29, 2001, Kyle Korver returned after arthroscopic knee surgery that cost him three games, a stretch that saw the Jays drop two of three. He scored 12 points in a 90-65 win over Mississippi Valley State, as the Jays jumped out to a 12-3 lead at the start of the game and never looked back. Other scoring leaders included Larry House with 15, Jimmy Motz with 13 and DeAnthony Bowden with 12.
Completely Random, Totally Rad Music Video of the Day: I took my iPod, which has 13,000+ songs on it, and hit “Play.” This is the first song that came up. I don’t know why this is on there; I remember having the soundtrack to this movie back in the day, but I didn’t realize I had ripped it into an MP3. Dammit. If I were capable of being embarrassed, this would be embarrassing. Then again, if I were capable of being embarrassed, I would have lied when this came up first and picked something else.
The Prediction: Vegas has the Redbirds as a one-point favorite. I’m going to go the other way and say the Jays win by two. The Jays have a bit more experience, and their front court is a bit better. Since both teams shoot horribly from behind the arc, generally, experience and front court play might well be the difference that gets them a road “W.”
Creighton 64, Illinois State 62