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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Stay tuned for more Wesner 4-point plays as the NCAA Tournament continues to supply madness in March.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
In two games against Wichita State, Missouri State had been defeated by 18 and 19 points, respectively.
Today was another verse to the same song.
The Bears (17-16, 7-11), held to 37.9 percent from the floor, were eliminated from Arch Madness, 78-63. The Shockers (29-4, 17-1) will play top-seeded Illinois State Sunday for a chance to etch their name into the NCAA Tournament field of 68.