Who Are You: Illinois State

Kevin Danna brings his insights and observations heading into Monday evening's NIT second round home contest versus the Illinois State Redbirds!

Well, this seems sort of familiar, doesn't it? Win at home in the first round of the NIT; play an MVC school in the second round.

Emphasis on "sort of," however. Unlike Missouri State, Illinois State didn't get screwed by the NCAA selection committee on Selection Sunday with an RPI better than 30 (the Redbirds barely cracked the top-100 in that department). And unlike the Missouri State game six years ago, the Farm Boys will be hosting this one; no trip to the Midwest necessary.

No trip to anywhere necessary, in fact, until it's Big Apple time, as the Farm Boys got some help from Illinois State and Bucknell to have home games throughout their pod en route to the NIT Final Four.

But first things first, as the Illinois State Redbirds fly west to Maples Pavilion for their first ever clash with the Stanford Cardinal on Monday night. Time to step inside Redbird World…

Illinois State – The Program Breakdown

Though it has been 14 years since the Redbirds have made the Big Dance, Illinois State is no stranger to the postseason. Led by fifth-year head coach Tim Jankovich, this NIT appearance marked the 18th time in school history that the Redbirds have played beyond their conference tournament in the form of the NCAA tournament (six times) or NIT (12 times) since joining the Division-I ranks a little more than 40 years ago. Needless to say, it's a program that is used to success: throughout their four-plus decades of D-I hoopin', the Redbirds have only had eight losing seasons. One of those seasons was last year, when ISU went 12-19 and a measly 4-14 in conference, leading to why this year's team's success was seen as a surprise to media pundits in the Valley.

Illinois State – The 2011-2012 Version

The newspaper tycoons, bloggers, writers and whatever may have you picked the Redbirds to finish eighth in a very tough Missouri Valley Conference way back in the fall. And when they started the year off with a questionable 55-47 loss to the Rodney Terry-led Fresno State Bulldogs, third from the bottom seemed about right. But it was only up from there for ISU. The Redbirds knocked off nine of their final 11 non-conference opponents, including a 68-36 beat down of Norfolk State, a 76-70 dub over Rutgers in the Grand Ballroom in Cancún (they would lose to Illinois 63-59 in the final) and a 79-75 victory against Oakland in their Bracket Busters game.

The non-conference success would lead to a fruitful Valley showing, ending up in a five-way tie for third at 9-9, which is pretty much on par with 10-8 in the Pac-12. The conference tourney is where they made sure C.M. Newton saved a place for them in the Field of 32, and I ain't talking about the new-look CIT. After a 54-42 W over Northern Iowa, the Redbirds gave Wichita State a shocker of their own in the form of a 65-64 victory to advance to the Valley Championship game. In that game, the Redbirds held Wichita State without a field goal for the final six and a half minutes.  Then it was off to the title bout, where Illinois State lost an 83-79 heartbreaker to Creighton in overtime.

Their showing in the Valley tournament resulted in the Redbirds being selected as one of the last at-large teams in the NIT field, setting up a date with Ole Miss in Oxford.

The Ole Miss Game

You probably know by now that Illinois State knocked off Ole Miss. They won the game by a 96-93 score in 45 minutes in one of the most entertaining games of March Madness thus far. I seriously would put it up against almost any NCAA tournament game in terms of offensive execution and excitement.

It's no secret how the Redbirds won this game: red-hot three-point shooting. Try 17-23, good for 74 percent and a school record. Those who would like to see the Farm Boys play more zone will probably have to wait another game considering that statistic. However, Illinois State was facing mostly a man defense from Ole Miss; in the seven possessions I counted the Rebels playing zone, the Redbirds were able to hit two threes. In the other five I counted, the Redbirds turned it over once, got a dunk off a Jackie Carmichael cut right down Broadway, missed a layup, missed a three, and had a ball deflected out before Ole Miss went back to man.

The Redbirds were getting open looks thanks to great ball movement and shooters using screens extremely well. In perhaps the best executed play I've seen this March, guard Nic Moore drove into the paint before kicking it out to Jon Ekey on the perimeter. Ekey then passed it to Anthony Cousin on the right wing; Cousin gave his defender a shot fake, got to 18 feet out at the top of the key, and gave it right back to Ekey, who made the extra pass for a wide open Moore in the right corner for a three. He nailed it and the Redbirds went up six late in overtime.

Defensively, Illinois State went man more than 90 percent of the time. It was a sagging man defense where Redbirds were almost always in a position to help. As you can tell by the score, the results were pretty sub-par. The Redbirds allowed the Rebels to shoot from the perimeter, and Andy Kennedy's group was more than willing to comply: Ole Miss shot 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from beyond the arc en route to 93 points.

When the Redbirds did go zone, it was mostly near the end of the first or second half and they would trap out of it.  It confused the Rebels a good bit; Ole Miss only got one bucket against the zone in the handful of possessions I counted (like four or five). The one Rebel bucket was off an offensive rebound off an air ball that led to a three (Ole Miss did get a couple of offensive rebounds against the Redbird zone).

As far as how the game went on the scoreboard, the Redbirds led for the vast majority of the game, ahead by 12 at the half and at one point up 47-34 early in the second. Even when the SEC Rebels were down 11 with less than four minutes to go, the Rebels found a huge gear in their mighty reserves and came all the way back and even grabbed the lead at 84-83 with less than 30 seconds to play.  However, Cousin hit a free throw to tie it up with 6.7 seconds to go, forcing overtime (Ole Miss got a GREAT look at the end of regulation, but Jarvis Summers missed an uncontested eight-footer at the buzzer).

In overtime, Illinois State pounded the paint on their first two possessions, getting dunks from Carmichael and Ekey. They lead would grow to six at one point, but the Rebels came charging back yet again. With the ball down two, an Ole Miss player threw a skip pass more than three feet over the head of his intended target with about four seconds to go. Cousin was fouled on the inbounds pass, hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second to force a 70-foot heave at the buzzer that was nowhere near the cylinder.

Personnel - Starting 5 from Ole Miss Game

·         Jackie Carmichael (6'9, 240 pounds, Junior Forward) - Carmichael is the Redbirds' main man down low. His 9.6 rebounds per game led the Missouri Valley Conference. He also leads the team with almost 14 points per contest, so he is basically a double-double waiting to happen. If he scores 16 points against Stanford, he will be the 40th member of the Redbird 1,000-point club. He has a very nice touch around the rim, uses the fade away very effectively, and can dunk with authority.

·         Tyler Brown (6'4, 185 pounds, Junior Guard) - This dude gets BUCKETS. He was 8-9 from downtown against Ole Miss; yes, that's right: 8-9 from downtown against Ole Miss. Dude was absolutely unstoppable en route to 26 points. The only person who stopped him was himself, as he fouled out of the game with more than four minutes remaining. If he wasn't in foul trouble, that game doesn't go to OT. He moved very well without the ball and was primarily the reason why I said Illinois State uses screens well; he was the best example of that. He was also the leading scorer in the Wichita State victory, dropping in 25 against the Shockers, including going 2-2 from the line to put ISU up one with six seconds to go in the Valley semis.

·         Nic Moore (5'9, 170 pounds, Freshman Point Guard) - There is so much to love about this kid. He can fill it up from deep, as he did by hitting all six of his three-point attempts against Ole Miss. He can create his own shot, as he did with the game on the line in overtime, opting to take it down the court himself, not pass it and instead pull up and hit a tough 18-footer to put Illinois State up 95-91. And oh yeah, he can pass too; ten assists in the Ole Miss game. He leads the team with almost four dimes per game and has a 1.8/1 assist/turnover ratio… from a freshman? Insert your favorite Clay Davis phrase here.

·         Jon Ekey (6'7, 215 pounds, RS Sophomore Forward) - I really like this guy. He's not their first option, nor second, nor third. But he is a skilled forward who also possesses nice touch on his fade away, and, like Brown, moves very well without the ball. He can be stealthy, as he was left wide open down low on the second possession of overtime. Cousin found him, and Ekey dunked it with ease. And, although he isn't a ball handler, Ekey has 50 assists against 22 turnovers in 34 games, so he is pretty solid with the rock. A 41 percent three-point shooter, 47 percent shooter overall, and 77 percent from the line. Not bad.

·         John Wilkins (6'9, 225 pounds, Junior Guard (but more of a forward) (JuCo transfer)) - They call him "Frenchy" because he was born in France. He is also labeled the team's defensive stopper. He is yet another guy who showed off the fade away from the low block and nailed it. He averages better than seven points and four rebounds per game while shooting 79 percent from the charity stripe (pretty much everyone on this team is a good free throw shooter).

Personnel - Coming off the bench or injured

·         Bryant Allen (6'0, 180 pounds, Sophomore Guard, Minnesota Transfer) - He became eligible in the middle of December and has been nothing but instant offense off the bench for Tim Jankovich. He hit a couple of threes against Ole Miss and had 29 points in a game earlier this season against Creighton (not the championship game). He is a lefty and averaged just about ten points per game in Valley contests, leading him to a spot on the MVC all-reserve squad.

·         Anthony Cousin (5'11, 185 pounds, Junior Guard, JuCo transfer from Alaska) - He made some huge plays down the stretch against Ole Miss, including hitting the game-tying free throw that sent it to overtime and a laser of a pass to Ekey for an open dunk. He is the second leading distributer on the team at 2.4 assists per game and also has a 1.9/1 assist/turnover ratio.

·        Zeke Upshaw (6'6, 210 pounds, RS Sophomore Guard) - He doesn't get in much, but he will probably see a few minutes. He averages six minutes per game in 26 games played off the pine. He doesn't really do anything that jumps out at you; he is 12-30 from the field on the season and 8-8 from the charity stripe.

·         Jordan Threloff (6'10, 255 pounds, RS Freshman) - His right thumb injury that has kept him out of the last four contests has really hurt the Redbirds' depth down low. He's a big dude that was productive in limited action; three points and three boards in ten minutes. He is out for 4-6 weeks, so he is basically done for the year and won't see time against the Cardinal.

Stat Comparison

Just like last time, opponents' season statistics against Illinois State and Stanford are in parentheses:

Category

Illinois State

Stanford

Scoring

69.1 (65.2)

70.7 (63)

FG%

.439 (.411)

.441 (.417)

3FG%

.375 (.351)

.367 (.335)

FT%

.750

.662

Rebounds

35 (32.8)

36.8 (32.1)

Defensive Rebounding %

.730 (.725)

.720 (.648)

Assists

13.2 (12.1)

12.5 (10.7)

Assists/FG ratio

.577 (.525)

.504 (NOLA Stand Up!) (.483)

Turnovers

11.9 (11.1)

13.8 (14.8)

Steals

5 (5.6)

6.3 (6.7)

Blocks

3.3 (2.4)

3.2 (3.7)

Percentage of shots as 3s

.430 (.361)

.323 (.304)

 

Quick Keys

Alright, I know this is getting pretty frickin' long, so I'll zip it up ASAP. Obviously, Stanford can't let Illinois State get a lot of open looks from downtown, because if the Redbirds get an inch from three, they'll take a mile. Offensively, Stanford will have a ton of looks from three, if the Ole Miss game is any indication of how the Redbirds plan to guard on Monday night- gotta knock down the open looks. Lastly, Stanford needs to re-dedicate itself to the glass. The last mid-major squad that came through Maples punked the Farm Boys on the glass in the first half and Carmichael is more than capable of doing the same on Monday night. Stanford can't forget that it is a very good rebounding team.

Illinois State barely won a game in which they shot 74 percent from downtown. No matter how many open looks they get against the Farm Boys on Monday night, it will be pretty hard to duplicate that success. If you're on the Stanford bench, you have to feel pretty good about your chances.

A date with Nevada awaits the victor. Will the Cardinal have their first dance with wolves since a pre-season scrimmage in November 2006, or will the Redbirds prolong their stay on the West Coast?

Like Brady Quinn in a Myoplex commercial, now I'm done.


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