Illinois State flying for first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Illinois State’s Deontae Hawkins has been here before. He was two years younger, but the stage was just as bright.

“That was a bad feeling in our stomachs once we left this place,” said Hawkins. “It doesn’t sit right with me, Tony, Paris or MiKyle.”

As underclassmen, Hawkins, Paris Lee, Tony Wills, and MiKyle McIntosh suited up in the championship of Arch Madness. The Redbirds, led by Daishon Knight and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, jumped on Northern Iowa before squandering a 16-point lead and what would have been the first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.

Today is a new day, however, and 27-5 Illinois State is in charge of its own destiny.

“We gotta come in here with that hungriness– that chip on our shoulder,” said Hawkins, the team’s leading scorer (14.0 PPG) and rebounder (6.4 RPG). “Everybody is against us, I believe. We are just going to come out and play OUR basketball.”

The last team standing in the way of the Redbirds is a familiar foe. Wichita State was defeated by the quartet to advance to the 2015 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game. This time, though, they are waiting to seize what is coveted by all, an automatic bid to the “Big Dance.

“We know we are not automatically in the tournament,” said Shockers’ sharpshooter Conner Frankamp. “That was our main focus coming into the week: Get to Sunday and WIN on Sunday.”

In a role reversal, Gregg Marshall’s group is now the team graced with talented underclassmen. Two Shockers, redshirt freshman Landry Shamet and sophomore Markis McDuffie, were named to the All-MVC first team. Though, Frankamp, Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly, and Shaq Morris have never NOT played in the NCAA Tournament to conclude a season. Thus, experience is still peppered within the 21st ranked team in the nation. 

“We had a lot of doubters of us winning it. So, now we just want to let the doubters down and just win it all,” Morris said. “Personally, you know, I just want to win. You know it’s in my blood, but it’s in my brothers’ too.”

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

But, does the Shockers have any more experience than three seniors and a redshirt junior who have soared through both peaks and valleys during their collegiate careers? Is it any more than a squad that was never anticipated to be co-champions WITH Wichita State? Is it any more than a team that has overcome emotional turmoil when losing assistant coach Torrey Ward?

“I feel like it brought the unit together as far as me, Tony, MiKyle and Deontae, and everybody that went through it,” said MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee. “This is (the) closest team we’ve been on, and it’s definitely due to the leadership on this team.”

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

Leadership begins with the head coach. Dan Muller has instilled important values and phrases into his players since day 1. One of great popularity is “chopping wood.”

“Each year we actually have a different theme. So this is the chopping wood theme,” Muller said. “Our guys have bought in. They’ve bought in every year. Last year was don’t let go of the rope, but it’s all about taking care of the process. That’s it.”

Hawkins has a more elaborate meaning.

“Chop the wood is just taking each possession at a time,” the All-MVC second team forward said. “Press pause. When you make a mistake, don’t even worry about the mistake you just made. Just PRESS pause.

“How coach has been explaining it to us is: ‘carry the water,’ care for one another, (and) carry your brother.”

Illinois State enters Scottrade Center as a seven-point underdog. Yet, no betting line can wilt the confidence soaring underneath the Redbirds. Moreover, they, as Wichita State, hold great value in winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, ultimately because it places their name in the field of 68. 

“Man, we have been snubbed all year. But, we just have to take care of the process,” Hawkins said. “We can’t worry about any of that (though). We just have to play Illinois State basketball and play the right way, which is not doing anything outrageous.”

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

Illinois State eyes their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998 this afternoon. Opening tip is scheduled for 2 p.m. EST. The showdown can be viewed on CBS.

– P. Wesner