All posts by Peyton Wesner

Peyton Wesner is a University of Illinois journalism major who has religiously watched MMA since July of 2013. He has written about the sport since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @pcwesner.

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.

Wesner: Xavier OWNS Orlando

Photo courtesy of AP.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando, Florida: known for Mickey Mouse, Universal Studios and Xavier basketball?

Orlando is more than a vacation spot for the Musketeers. It’s a place of great memories and dominant victories.  

Since November 2015, the #11 Xavier Musketeers are 8-0 with two early season tournament championships and a clinched trip to the Sweet Sixteen. In the history of neutral site games in Orange County (Florida), the program is 11-2 — good for the most wins by any Division I program.

Yet, when Xavier wins, they win BIG.

In the eleven victories, the Big East representative from Cincinnati, Ohio, triumphs by an average margin of 13.4 points. Moreover, they leave NO doubt in championship games or contests that have a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. Xavier’s smallest margin of victory is 8 points with such a stratification.

Photo courtesy of CBS Sports.

Xavier junior Trevon Bluiett, who scored 29 points this evening versus #3 Florida State, loves playing in “City Beautiful.” The 6’6″ Indianapolis, Indiana, product has found a second home in Orlando and is averaging 18.5 points per game dating back to the 2015 Advocare Invitational. 

Whether the weather, amusement parks or meeting Mickey Mouse inspires Xavier is unknown. Nevertheless, there is no question Orlando is a place that holds great significance to the current group of Musketeers.

With tonight’s win, Xavier has advanced to their eighth Sweet Sixteen. They will play the winner of #2 Arizona and #7 St. Mary’s in San Jose, California, on March 23. 

— P. Wesner

Photo created by Peyton Wesner.

Wesner: Illinois’ Underwood is Groce 2.0

Photo courtesy of Sporting News.
Nine days and one NIT win later, and Illinois Fighting Illini basketball has a new head coach.

No, neither Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall nor Dayton’s Archie Miller is heading to Champaign. Instead, Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood is upgrading his destination for the second time in two years.

If you are an Illini fan, buckle up because this road is set to get bumpy. 


Brad Underwood is John Groce 2.0.

“We were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball,” said Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman in a statement. “Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness.

“Off the court, Brad builds strong, personal relationships with his student-athletes. His winning combination of strong Midwest values and tenacious work ethic are a perfect fit for our community and the Illini Nation.”

Granted, unlike Groce, Underwood has experience coaching at a major university. The 53-year old finished the 2016-2017 season with a 20-13 record and a 10th seeded Cowboys squad that pushed Michigan to the brink yesterday. Though, that is the ONLY difference.

Underwood is an unproven leader who lived off a one-man team for three years. Think about it, without Thomas Walkup, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks would have been nothing more than a mediocre team in the Southland Conference. Sounds familiar doesn’t? No? Groce did the same exact thing with D.J. Cooper (complemented by a young Nick Kellogg) during three years at Ohio University.

The comparison of NCAA Tournament upsets is impeccable. Underwood defeated 3rd seeded West Virginia in 2016, two years prior to dropping 5th seed VCU. Groce, in the same sense, defeated a 4th seeded Michigan, propelling the Bobcats to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012, which ALSO occurred two years before an upset of 3rd seeded Georgetown. 

There’s no question an 89-14 mark at the Division I level is impressive — after all, it doesn’t happen overnight. Once one sees the strength of schedule; however, the accomplishment becomes a different story. 

In three seasons, Underwood’s Lumberjacks had an average strength of schedule of -5.47. -5.47! 

Sure, he took advantage of Oklahoma State’s power conference status with non-conference matchups against Maryland and Wichita State this season. But, you must remember Oklahoma State basketball is heralded higher than Illinois; they have made the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years. Thus, do not expect non-conference showdowns with Wichita State and other powerhouse programs next season or even two years down the road. If you do, that’s unrealistic.

So, where does Illinois go from here?

The common philosophy is to allow a new head coach several years to adjust and build a great recruiting class. Ironically, John Groce has given Underwood the keys to a new Cadillac with incoming 4-star freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon and Da’Monte Williams, not to mention Florida grown Trent Frazier.

Is the future bright for Illinois? 


Will it come as soon as next season? 

Don’t get your hopes up. Underwood couldn’t produce an over .500 conference record in the Big 12.

The Big Ten may not be any easier. 

— P. Wesner

Wesner’s 4-Point Play: The NOT SO Wild West, the rise of #12 Middle Tennessee & fall of #12 Nevada

Photo courtesy of Getty Images and Mike Ehrmann.

1. The NOT SO Wild West
The complete West Regional was in action on Thursday. 

Let’s just someone left the chalk out.

In eight games, just one featured a lower seed prevailing victoriously; #11 Xavier defeated #6 Maryland, 76-65.

Though, is an Edmond Sumner-less Musketeers beating an overrated Terrapins team an upset? 

Absolutely not! 

Bracket brainiacs know Xavier OWNS City Beautiful, aka Orlando, Florida. Since November 2015, Chris Mack’s squad is 7-0 with two early season tournament championships (2015 Advocare Invitational and 2016 Tire Pros Tip-Off) in Orange County (Florida). Equally impressive is the individual play of the junior sensation Bluiett, underneath the Florida sun, is averaging 17 points per game in Orlando during his collegiate career.

Despite defeat, mid-major scoring guards lived up to their expectations. #13 Bucknell sophomore Kimbal Mackenzie netted 23 points (7-of-15 shooting), #14 Florida Gulf Coast junior Brandon Goodwin finished with 28 points (12-of-27 shooting) and 7 rebounds and #15 North Dakota senior Quinton Hooker had 25 points (10-of-21 shooting). Though, a common denominator, outside of defeat, is all three had shooting percentages under 50 percent.

Efficient performances are imperative for star mid-major guards if one wants to advance to the next round.

2. #5 Virginia and #4 Florida kill upset fun

When the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced, the Virginia Cavaliers and Florida Gators were immediately put on upset alert. Both lost the first game of their respective conference tournaments and appeared to be sitting ducks (No pun intended, Oregon) for #12 UNC Wilmington and #13 East Tennessee State.

It’s always sunny in Orlando.

The two higher seeds held off competitive showings from their opponents to force a Saturday night showdown for a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

For a second straight game, Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers struggled to string stops together on the defensive end. Against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, Virginia gave up 71 points, which is the same amount the Seahawks posted.

Upperclassmen London Perrantes and Marial Shayok outshined the heralded UNC Wilmington duo of C.J. Bryce and Chris Flemmings, combining for 47 points on 17-of-28 shooting as opposed to the latter’s 9-of-27, 26-point total. 

One positive Virginia can take away on defense is the blanket they threw on Bryce. The Seahawks leading scorer, normally responsible for about 18 points per game, was limited to 8 points.

While Cavalier Nation had to sweat out 40 minutes, the heartbeat of the Florida faithful raised very little. The Gators exploited East Tennessee State’s lack of athleticism and frontcourt size in route to an 80-65 victory.

Devin Robinson did it all. The junior stuffed the stat sheet via a 27-point, 7-rebound, 2-block performance. Senior Kasey Hill neutralized the impact of Buccaneers guard T.J. Cromer (19 points) with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists.

3. #12 Nevada caged by poor shooting

Two years ago, Marcus Marshall and Jordan Caroline both wore maroon.

Marshall, who was the star on Missouri State, and Caroline, a freshman at Southern Illinois, started their collegiate careers within the Missouri Valley Conference.

Then, the mass transfer exodus of 2015 occurred. Marshall and Caroline, along with other big names, like Illinois State’s Reggie Lynch and SIU’s Deion Lavender, grabbed their sneakers and headed elsewhere. 

On a day when Lynch’s NCAA Tournament title aspirations evaporated with Minnesota, Marshall and Caroline had a chance to seize a win over #5 Iowa State.

11-of-32 shooting will NEVER get the job done.

Although the tandem scored 36 points, missed field goals turned into wasted possessions for Nevada, resulting in an 84-73 defeat.

The Wolfpack did a very good job causing turnovers — they forced the Cyclones to spin into 14. However, they failed to rebound against Iowa State’s Big 12 bodies, losing the rebounding battle, 38-28, and was taxed to exhaustion due to a lack of depth.

Nevada only went six deep. In comparison, Iowa State played eight with FIVE chipping in at least 12 points. Cyclones senior Monte Morris pushed the envelope for a triple-double, yet was two rebounds and two assists shy (19 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists). 

Iowa State will face arguably the nation’s best frontcourt, #4 Purdue’s Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan, on Saturday.

Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Sports.

4. The blossom of a perineal mid-major

If there was one school every bracket brainiac despised last season, it was none other than #12 Middle Tennessee. As a 15-seed, the Blue Raiders burned a multitude of brackets by defeating Michigan State in the opening round.

This year, Middle Tennessee had a chance to be its haters’ best friend with a win over #5 Minnesota. 

A villain was turned hero.

Led by scary seniors JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw, not to mention junior Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee stayed one step ahead of Minnesota to defeat its second Big Ten NCAA Tournament opponent in 12 months. 

All three members of the trio posted double-digits. Upshaw seized the spotlight with 19 points and 9 rebounds against the Golden Gophers, who are known for their rebounding ability (via Reggie Lynch).

Thursday’s win for Middle Tennessee has solidified their reputation as a bona fide bracket buster. With Belmont and Monmouth falling to the NIT, Middle Tennessee, outside of Wichita State and Gonzaga, may be the most dominant mid-major of the 2016-17 season.

New will meet old on Saturday; past mid-major and current Big East team #4 Butler will face the new kids on the block for a berth to the Sweet 16 on the line.

Starting Five

1. Trevon Bluiett (#11 Xavier)

  • 21 points (7-15), 4 rebounds, 4 assists.
  • Averaging 17 PPG in games played within Orange County (Fla.).

2. Bryant McIntosh (#8 Northwestern)

  • 25 points (10-16), 4 rebounds, 3 assists.
  • Made pair of free throws to give Wildcats 1-point lead with 15 seconds left.

3. Reggie Upshaw (#12 Middle Tennessee)

  • 19 points (7-13), 9 rebounds.
  • Averaging 18.3 PPG and 7.8 RPG since start of Conference USA Tournament.

4. Donte DiVincenzo (#1 Villanova)

  • 21 points (9-15), 13 rebounds.
  • 1st double-double of collegiate career.

5. Dwayne Bacon (#3 Florida State)

  • 25 points (11-17), 9 rebounds.
  • Has posted double-figures points in 33-of-34 games this season.

Photo courtesy of Florida Seminoles athletics.

Stay tuned for more Wesner 4-point plays as the NCAA Tournament continues to supply madness in March.

— P. Wesner

RECAP: Hawkins, Lee fly #1 Illinois State past #8 UC Irvine, setting up match-up with #4 UCF

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

NORMAL, Ill. — Postseason basketball; a new season for all.

Although it was not in the tournament they desired, Illinois State clubbed pesky UC Irvine in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, 85-71.

Seniors Deontae Hawkins and Paris Lee, in a showing that featured the Redbirds shooting 52% from beyond the arc, scored 22 and 13 points respectively to advance the active home winning streak to 22 games.

“Some guys were like, ‘Man, I’m grateful we’re here but this is not the NCAA Tournament,'” said Lee of the group’s mentality after Selection Sunday. “Once we got settled in practice, everyone was like, ‘We might as well win it while we’re doing it.'” Continue reading RECAP: Hawkins, Lee fly #1 Illinois State past #8 UC Irvine, setting up match-up with #4 UCF

RECAP: #21 Wichita State takes MVC auto-bid in 71-51 thrashing of Illinois State

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Scottrade Center was divided near mid-court at the border of Shocker Nation and the Red Sea.

This afternoon, in the grudge match between Illinois State and #21 Wichita State, Shocker Nation had the most to cheer about.

In a battle of attrition, the Shockers (30-4, 17-1) won their second Arch Madness in four years, defeating the Redbirds (27-6, 17-1), 71-51. Free throws were the difference, Wichita State shot 37, making 26, while Illinois State was limited to 19.

“They were really physical. When we had — I think our foul trouble almost made us foul more,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller. “They have five guys on the court at all times that are threats, and it’s hard to guard.”

Illinois State never led today. The Shockers jumped ahead with a pair of McDuffie free throws in the opening minute.

MVC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Conner Frankamp, as on Saturday, sent the fans behind the bench into a frenzy with his first triple. MVC Freshman of the Year Landry Shamet also got into the act; he scored six of his game-high 19 points, giving Wichita State a 13-4 lead.

The Redbirds answered quickly. MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee gave the Red Sea something to cheer about as he hit his first triple. Lee, as well as sophomore Keyshawn Evans, kept Frankamp’s extended explosion at bay while pulling Illinois State within four.

Though, every time Illinois State cut the deficit to a single possession, Wichita State responded by adding multiple baskets. 

After an Evans’ triple at the 10:50-mark, Shockers’ junior Shaq Morris went on a personal 4-0 run. Moreover, when a McIntosh layup withered the margin to three, Wichita State went on a 9-1 burst, capped by a Darall Willis Jr. tip-in. Gregg Marshall’s squad had gained their first double-digit edge of the day.

And, certainly, it wasn’t their last.

Although Lee sliced the Shockers’ advantage to eight before halftime, Illinois State fell behind by 13 within the first 100 seconds of the second half.

The Redbirds were within single-digits for a final time with 15:54 remaining in regulation.

Nine consecutive Shockers’ free throws ballooned a nine-point deficit into a 17-point gash.

“Clearly, this is the best offensive team they’ve had, might be the best defense,” Muller said of Wichita State. “They don’t have one senior, I mean, they’re really, really, really good.”

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.

Frustration boiled over for Illinois State in the form of technical fouls by Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh. 

Two more of McDuffie’s 16 points opened the lead to 21 with the clock under five minutes remaining.

Following the clock hitting triple zeroes, Lee and McIntosh walked to the locker room with towels draped over their heads. Uncertainty had now engulfed them.

Despite the box score showing inefficiency, Paris Lee did anything and everything Sunday. The senior scored 18 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in 35 minutes. Junior MiKyle McIntosh was limited throughout before finding his stroke late. McIntosh had 16 points and 7 rebounds. 

“He had fight in him. Other guys did, but not like him today,” said Muller of Lee. “He brought us back to three or five (points), and they stretched it again. But, without his play, his competitiveness. I don’t know where we would have been tonight.”

Wichita State’s production was peppered among junior Conner Frankamp, sophomore Markis McDuffie, and freshman Landry Shamet. The trio combined for 49 points; Frankamp had 19, McDuffie finished with 16, and Shamet netted 14. 

Shaq Morris grabbed 10 rebounds to go along with 4 points.

Wichita State, as the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions, is automatically one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament. 

“It don’t matter who we play. It’s just a great feeling to know we’re in the tournament the whole week,” said McDuffie. “If we’d have lost, it would have been kind of stressful to think about the whole week, about the loss. Now that we got this win, we can just work to get better.”

The Redbirds, on the other hand, will have to wait until Selection Sunday to find out their fate.

“It would mean a lot to me. I always dreamed about playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Paris Lee said. “It would be a blessing to be in the tournament right now.”

CBS’ Selection Sunday show will air March 12 at 5:30 p.m. EST.

– P. Wesner

Photo courtesy of Peyton Wesner.