Is this Illinois State’s time to shine? Is this its opportunity to punch the neighborhood bully in the nose? We will find out Saturday night.
Illinois State hosts three-time defending champion Wichita State in a nationally televised game (7 pm CST, ESPN2) for the outright lead in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Valley’s top two teams are both 5-0 in league play and they were picked to finish one-two in the preseason coaches/media poll.
Wichita State has won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title three straight years, and in that time, counting this season and league tournament play, they have a record of 61-5. Three of those losses have come at the hands of Northern Iowa.
The two other blemishes on the Shockers’ resume have been handed out by Illinois State. As a matter of fact, the Redbirds knocked off WSU last year at Doug Collins Court, the scene of Saturday’s game.
This will be a heavyweight fight in every way imaginable. They will play in Wichita later in the season, but this is the game that determines the feel of the rest of the MVC season.
There is great respect between these two programs and coaches, but Wichita’s Gregg Marshall and ISU’s Dan Muller aren’t exactly drinking buddies.
Three years ago, in that same coaches/media poll, the Shockers received every first-place vote, except the one from Muller. He was bold enough to vote for his own team and admit it to the media.
Four years ago, Deontae Hawkins signed with Illinois State after originally signing with the Shockers. There was such an uproar over a player moving from one Valley member to another, that Commissioner Doug Elgin had to rule on Hawkins’ eligibility on two separate occasions.
But what about Saturday’s game? Will Illinois State’s experience overcome Wichita State’s depth? These two teams are so similar that we are looking for the proverbial ‘X-Factor’ to tell them apart.
They are the Valley’s two best teams at stopping the opposition from making baskets. They are the league’s top two rebounding teams. The Redbirds (13-4, 5-0) lead the league in blocked shots and the Shockers (15-3, 5-0) collect the most steals. In short, defense is the name of the game for the two undefeated squads.
The war of attrition could be the key factor in this contest. While the Redbirds may be the most experienced team in the league, starting three seniors, a junior, and a sophomore, they aren’t the deepest. That title belongs to Marshall’s Minions.
The Shocker leader sends players into the game like a hockey coach. 10 Shockers average over 13 minutes per game and 4.8 points per game. How deep are the Shockers? Preseason all-conference player and leading scorer Markis McDuffie (12.6 points per game) has started just 10 of Wichita’s 18 games.
Only redshirt freshman Landry Shamet has started every game, but even he only plays 24 minutes per game. Shamet, transfer Daishon Smith, and Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp could start for most Division I teams, but it’s freshman Austin Reaves that leads the team with a .537 three-point percentage.
If McDuffie is the lightning, then junior college transfer Darral Willis Jr. is the thunder in the Shocker lineup. The 6’9 junior is the team’s second-leading scorer (12.0 points per game) and leads the team in rebounding with over six per game, and there are eight games he didn’t start either.
“When you’ve got that kind of fire power from multiple positions, it can be very difficult,” Muller said in a press conference.
They have defensive stoppers, multiple centers, six different players that average more than one long distance make per game and they all make free throws. There is no weakness in the WSU line up.
On the other hand there are just two, little-used seniors on the squad.
The Redbirds believe this is their year to make history. Seniors Paris Lee, Hawkins, and Tony Wills came to Normal the same year as junior MiKyle McIntosh. Those four are the heart and soul of Muller’s team and rotation. Transfers Phil Fayne and D.J. Clayton are the only other players to start a game, and no other players average as many as five points per game.
However, Hawkins and McIntosh are true thoroughbreds and unique players in the Missouri Valley. Both stand 6’7 or better, shoot the three, rebound with authority, and they are athletic, physical, and strong.
Hawkins and McIntosh both average over 14 points per game while grabbing over 6.5 rebounds. They are both making more than 40 percent of their shots from long distance.
Lee may be the best point guard in the league. He averages 13.2 points per game, but more importantly, leads the MVC in assists and is second in steals. If the four veterans are the heart and soul of the team, Lee is the spinal chord that holds it all together.
Wichita State wears people out and they usually take the opposing team’s best player out of the mix. Saturday, the Redbirds have three ‘best players.’ Illinois State is bigger and more athletic than most teams, but the Shockers are not most teams.
Depth or experience? We’ll find out.