Redbird Nation excited for possible matchup with Illinois

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

Fifty-seven miles — that is the distance between State Farm Center and Redbird Arena. Despite the proximity, the Illinois State Redbirds and Illinois Fighting Illini have played just eight times in 97 years.

A ninth meeting may be in the works for Wednesday.

If #1 Illinois State defeats #4 UCF and #2 Illinois is victorious against #6 Boise State, the in-state rivals will play for a trip to the 2017 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) semifinals. It would be the first time the two have battled in the postseason since the 1980 NIT.

Because the matchup is one win away, Bloomington-Normal is buzzing over the possibility to knock off the heralded program.

“They are obviously having a down year, and we are having an up year,” said ISU class of 1999 graduate David DiMarzio. “We should beat them.”

The first meeting between ISU and U-of-I was in Normal, Illinois, on December 20, 1920. The Fighting Illini were the victors, winning 31-21. The initial contest was the LAST time the Redbirds hosted the most distinguished college basketball team in the state.

Ironically, the imbalance in scheduling led DiMarzio to alter his allegiance.

“I grew up as an Illini fan because I didn’t know any better. Then I came to ISU, and I found out that they won’t play us here (at Redbird Arena),” DiMarzio said. “That’s the big reason that I stopped liking them and cheering for them.”

Since 1920, Illinois has won seven straight contests against Illinois State. No game has been a full-fledged blowout, however. The Birds have kept within ten points in four of the eight contests. Moreover, the 2011-2012 squad took the Fighting Illini into deep waters at the Cancun Challenge before being edged 63-59.

Yet, this Redbirds’ team is more talented than five years ago. Although Illinois State had Nic Moore, Jackie Carmichael and Jon Ekey, their record (21-14) pales in comparison to the final campaign of seniors Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins and Tony Wills (28-6). 

With this in mind, Bloomington, Illinois, native Zachary Holland understands the significance of advancing to the semi-finals of a postseason tournament.

“That would be really big,” Holland said. “I don’t think that has ever happened.”

Holland is right: The Redbirds have not won a game, in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT, to move to the national semifinals.

Colleen Sherwood, who graduated from Illinois State last year, can describe the atmosphere for the Fighting Illini’s trip to Normal in one word.

“It would be crazy!” Sherwood said.

Whether the possible matchup leads to regular season contests is unknown. 2004 was the last time Illinois scheduled Illinois State for a non-conference bout.

Current ISU student Jacob Veazey has hope a victory could spark the beginning of a consistent rivalry.

“If we beat them in the tournament, I think it is a reason to schedule games yearly,” said Veazey.

School pride fills the community of Bloomington-Normal before tonight’s second round matchup versus UCF. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST on ESPN.

— P. Wesner

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.