Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Wichita State defended their home court and improved to 5-1 in the MVC while Illinois State suffered further setbacks as they watch their season fall to pieces at their feet. It's official: the Redbirds have lost their flight plans.
I watched Illinois State live when they were undefeated. The Redbirds defeated Drexel in the Dragons' territory in a hard-fought overtime contest on Jackie Carmichael's back.
The Redbirds from that game against Drexel brought fight to the court when they were down by eight points in the second half, hitting clutch shots and performing down the stretch.
They provided Carmichael -- their cornerstone -- with support scoring and smart shot selection. They moved the ball well on offense and hustled for fifty-fifty balls.
But the Redbirds I watched lose to Wichita State tonight are an entirely different team.
Aside from the perpetual stat machine that is Jackie Carmichael, Illinois State was an offensive nightmare. They shot 32.8 percent from the field during the contest, but the problem lies in the "aside from Carmichael" fraction of the team. He shot 56 percent. His teammates shot 25 percent.
And then there's the fact that Illinois State decided to shoot this abysmally in a make-or-break game against Wichita State. If the Redbirds wanted any semblance of hope of turnaround for the rest of their season, this was going to be the big one.
Instead, Wichita State had five double-digit scorers, Cleanthony Early put in his routine 16 points, and Nick Wiggins hit three wide open 3-pointers. All that illustrates why the Redbirds I watched lose tonight are an entirely different team from that November form they displayed.
How many eight-rebound games do you think Illinois State's Jon Ekey had during their undefeated start? Two of the season's first five games. Do you know how many eight-rebound games he's had in the team's 4-9 stretch since then? Zero.
It showed tonight.
The Shockers completely dominated the Redbirds on the glass early on. Wichita forward Carl Hall returned from injury as if he had never left. He continued his torrid rebounding season with 10 more tonight, the highest tally for either team. Carmichael was left to fend for himself in terms of creating second-chance opportunities for his team.
Which illustrates an increasingly powerful point in Normal, Illinois.
Gone is Illinois State's collectivity -- the depth that kept them in games early on in the season. All of that support and talent has migrated southwest for the winter to the team residing in the Charles Koch Arena. And Wichita State is making full use of it.
Don't get me wrong: there are flaws in the Shockers' game. They have a heavy reliance on the 3-point shot and turned the ball over 16 times tonight, flaws that need fixing before March.
But they have depth, and they have hustle, which is why they're atop the MVC right now. Earlier in the year, Jackie Carmichael and his team convinced me that they would be right there with the Shockers because they had the exact same traits.
Yet the Redbirds I watched lose tonight are an entirely different team. They're 9-9, losers of five straight.
That isn't the team I believed in.
On the other hand, the Shockers? Those are the Redbirds I saw back in November. Believe in them.