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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 10 Illinois State Redbirds

Will Milik Yarbrough carry or bury the Redbirds?

NCAA Basketball: Puerto Rico Tip-Off-Illinois State vs South Carolina Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 18-15

Key Returning Players: Milik Yarbrough (Sr. F), Phil Fayne (Sr. F), Keyshawn Evans (Sr. G)

Key Losses: None

Key Newcomers: Zach Copeland (Jr. G), Josh Jefferson (Jr. G), Matt Chastain (RS So. F via Loyola University Chicago)

Illinois State has played in two straight Missouri Valley Conference tournament title games, winning neither. This year’s Redbird team might be the most talented in Dan Muller’s seven-year stint in Normal, Illinois.

With four returning senior starters, Illinois State is rich in experience and athleticism. Last season, ISU posted big wins over South Carolina and Ole Miss, but dropped all three of their games with eventual MVC champion Loyola. Two of those losses to the Final Four Ramblers were by just three points.

Key Non-Conference Games

Nov. 10 @ Belmont

Nov. 19 vs. Georgia (in the Cayman Islands)

Nov. 28 vs. BYU

Dec. 1 vs. San Diego State

Dec. 8 vs. Ole Miss

Three Things To Watch

Keyshawn Evans’ Leadership

The senior guard is the Redbirds’ emotional leader, and Muller believes the best teams are teams that are “player coached.” Evans averaged 15.2 points and 3.6 assists per game last season. He made 91 three-pointers (.419 percentage) and plays with confidence and swagger. When he is on his game, he elevates the energy of every other player.

Evans, a Missouri Valley preseason all-conference second team nominee, says it’s his job to hold his teammates accountable. He was mentored by former Valley Player of the Year Paris Lee, who led the Redbirds to the 2017 regular season title. Lee taught Evans to lead, defend and to make big plays in tight situations.

Defense and Rebounding

When Muller’s teams defend, they are successful. The last time they won the regular season conference title, Redbirds held opponents to shooting 37.9 from the field and allowed just 61.3 points per game. But last season, the Redbirds yielded up 73.3 points and opponents shot 42.6% against them.

Bad defense leads to poor rebounding. The Redbirds posted a conference-worst rebounding margin (-3.5) last season, but Muller saw improvement in both departments late in the year and hopes to maintain that momentum this season. The addition of a pair of 6’9 freshmen Abdou Ndiaye and Rey Idowu could help narrow this rebounding deficit.

High Level Newcomers

Zach Copeland and Josh Jefferson were both top 100 junior college prospects per jucorecruiting.com and are elite-level shooters. Copeland sat out last season after transferring from City College of San Francisco. He made 47.7% of his shots from deep. On the other hand, Jefferson connected on 44.8%8 of his long distance shots while playing for Lake Land College.

Fayne says Copeland’s greatest strength is the way he competes. The 6’9 senior says Copeland is so fiercely competitive that his attitude rubs off on his teammates.

Matt Chastain was a three-star recruit when he signed with Loyola, but an injured knee ended his freshman season after just three games. He transferred to ISU and sat out last season. The 6’6 wing brings a scoring and physical force to the Redbird lineup. Chastain scored over 2,400 points in high school; when healthy, he is a game-changing type of player.

X Factor

Milik Yarbrough is Illinois State’s best player. The 6’6 senior averaged 16.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and a league-leading 4.8 assists per game, but he has had off-the-court issues. His well-documented legal run-ins have angered some Redbird fans and have resulted in suspensions. His status for the beginning of the season is up in the air. His most recent infraction involved his allegedly leaving the scene of an accident where a pedestrian was struck.

When on the court and motivated, Yarbrough is arguably the Valley’s best player; not surprisingly, he was tabbed as a preseason first team selection this year. During his freshman season at Saint Louis University, he was named to the A-10’s All-Rookie team, and he carried that momentum last season as he was named the Valley’s Newcomer of the Year and an all-conference section. He has the ability to drive to the rim, score from outside (31 three-pointers) and makes 80% of his free throws.

If Yarbrough plays to his potential, Illinois State can win the title. If he misses large parts of the season or struggles to produce, the Redbirds will struggle too.