NORMAL, Ill. — In the off-season, the Wichita State Shockers made the move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the American Athletic Conference.
The move added stiffer competition for the Shockers and bolstered the talent level of the AAC as a conference. At the same time, it opened up the Missouri Valley Conference and made the race for the league title much more exciting than in year’s past.
The Missouri State Bears came into the season as the preseason favourites, and have lived up to the bill through three games. Coming into Sunday’s contest against the Illinois State Redbirds, the Bears are one of just two teams who are still undefeated in Missouri Valley Conference play, along with the Drake Bulldogs (4-0).
Missouri State has won four straight games, and will be looking to move to 4-0 in conference play. The Redbirds won’t make things easy, as they are coming off a loss that ended their own four-game winning streak. On their home floor, Illinois State will be looking to start a new winning streak at the expense of the Bears.
Here’s what you need to know in advance of Sunday afternoon’s Missouri Valley Conference game between Missouri State and Illinois State.
Last Time Out
In their last outing, Missouri State got another big game from senior forward Alize Johnson as they extended their winning streak to four games with a 62-55 win at home over the Northern Iowa Panthers. Johnson recorded 24 points and 20 rebounds for his second 20-20 game of the season. He has two of the nation’s five 20-20 games this season. It was also his fourth consecutive double-double, and 10th on the year.
J.T. Miller came off the bench to score 13 points while also pulling down six rebounds, and Jarrid Rhodes had nine points. Six other players scored in the win, but none of them scored more than four points. The Bears won the game at the free throw line, going 18-of-27 in comparison to 11-of-19 for the Panthers.
While the Bears extended their winning streak to four games in their previous outing, Illinois State saw their four game streak come to an end at the hands of the aforementioned Drake Bulldogs. On their home floor in Des Moines, IA, the Bulldogs cruised to the 87-62 victory over the Redbirds, thanks in large part to 28 points from guard Reed Timmer.
Keyshawn Evans scored a team-high 13 points off the bench for the Redbirds, while Milik Yarbrough contributed 11 points, seven assists, and five rebounds in a losing effort. The loss was the first conference defeat for the Redbirds in three games.
Illinois State had the Bears’ number during the 2016-17 season, as the Redbirds swept the season series against Missouri State. The two teams met for a second time on February 15th, 2017 in Springfield, MO, and the Redbirds edged the Bears by one point, 67-66.
Deontae Hawkins posted 19 points and three rebounds to lead all scorers on the day. Guards Tony Wills and DJ Clayton recorded 12 points apiece for the Redbirds, who shot 45.8% from the floor as a team.
The Bears had four different players score in double figures in the loss. Alize Johnson had a team-high 17 points to go along with eight rebounds, while Rhodes had 16 points. Obediah Church added six points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks for the Bears.
Players to Watch
Missouri State – Jarrid Rhodes
Senior wing Jarrid Rhodes has been an important piece to the puzzle for Missouri State this season. He started out the season slow on the offensive end, posting just two games with double digit points over his first eight games, a stretch that included a game where he was held off the scoreboard. Since the month of December, and into the New Year, Rhodes has six double-digit scoring games over a span of eight contests. The native of Palmetto, FL is finding his groove, and is averaging 9.1 points per game this season. Rhodes also has at least three rebounds in 13 of the Bears’ 16 games, and is averaging 4.1 rebounds per contest this season. The veteran brings a wealth of experience with him, which could help the Bears steal a win or two in close conference games as the season progresses.
Illinois State – Milik Yarbrough
Junior wing Milik Yarbrough is in his first season at Illinois State, and the native of nearby Zion, IL is having himself a career year with the Redbirds. After two seasons with the Saint Louis Billikens, the 6’6” Yarbrough transferred to Illinois State following the 2015-16 season, and after sitting out last year due to the NCAA’s transfer regulations, he has put together an impressive season in 2017-18. He is averaging 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 0.9 steals per game, all of which are career high marks. He is shooting 48.1% from the floor, 34.8% from three point range, and 77.2% from the free throw line. Yarbrough has nine straight games with double digit points, and he has shot 50% or better from the floor in five of those games. He is an excellent offensive talent who can also contribute on the glass and with his ball distribution. Chalk up Yarbrough as one of the top transfer players of the year.
After starting the season 2-2, Missouri State has won 11 of their last 12 games, and come into Sunday’s contest riding a four-game winning streak. They have one of the best forwards in the country in Alize Johnson, and he has been on quite a tear over the four game streak.
On the flip side, the Redbirds are coming off a loss that ended their own four game winning streak. Illinois State will be looking to get back on the right track and remain near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
Last year’s meetings were closely contested affairs, with the Redbirds picking up a pair of wins at the Bears’ expense. This time around, it will be a different story, as Missouri State will go into Normal, IL and come home with a win over Illinois State to push their win streak to five games.
Missouri State – 76
Illinois State – 66
– T. Bennett