By Kevin Sweeney
Maybe after tonight, Illinois State will finally get the national respect they deserve.
The Redbirds have been impressive all season, but going into tonight’s game vs perennial MVC power Wichita State, most still believed that the Shockers were the team to beat in the MVC.
Illinois State played with something to prove and made a statement on national television, knocking off the Shockers 76-62 in front of a packed house in Normal, IL to move to 6-0 in Missouri Valley play.
From the get-go, the veteran Redbirds were hot from beyond the arc, with their first 3 field goals coming from distance. They made runs when they needed to, got stops in key spots, and never let Wichita State silence their crowd.
Here are my takeaways from what may well turn out to be the biggest game of the MVC season.
1. Illinois State can survive without depth: One of the major concerns I had about Illinois State in this game was their lack of depth. They basically play just 7 guys, while the Shockers typically play 10-11. As the Redbirds’ lead dwindled to 3 with 6:14 to go, I thought they might be running out of gas. However, they responded with a decisive 13-2 run over the next 4+ minutes to close the door on a Shocker comeback. Meanwhile, Keyshawn Evans and D.J. Clayton made big contributions off the bench, with Clayton posting 11 points and Evans adding 10. It would be difficult to survive an injury, but this core 7 with some spot minutes from the rest of the bench should be enough to win Illinois State plenty of games from here on out.
2. Wichita State needs leadership: Whenever you lose a senior class like the Shockers did, one that included Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, and Evan Wessell, there is bound to be a bit of a leadership void. While this Shockers team is very talented, they are young and don’t have a guy who can take over when things get tough. Maybe that guy is sophomore Markis McDuffie, or point guard Landry Shamet, but Wichita State will drop some road games in MVC play unless someone can step up and carry the load down the stretch.
3. The Missouri Valley is a One-Bid League: I hate to say it, but I don’t see the MVC getting any at-large bids to this year’s NCAA Tournament. Unless one of these teams runs the table the rest of the way until the conference tournament, I don’t see them receiving an at-large bid. Neither squad will have enough quality wins to impress the committee compared to some of the mid-pack teams in major conferences. Arch Madness should be absolute mayhem, with the pressure on to win the conference tournament in order to go dancing.