On Dec. 1, Illinois State's basketball team went to Louisville and came within three points of beating a team that now owns the nation's No. 1 ranking.
On Dec. 19, the Redbirds traveled to Dayton and pulled out a dramatic 74-73 win in a tough venue over a team that has NCAA tournament aspirations.
On Jan. 12, Illinois State lost on its homecourt to a Drake team that hadn't won in Missouri Valley play. The defeat left the Redbirds 0-5 in the league.
The first 2½ weeks of Valley action have produced plenty of surprises, but none bigger than the struggles that have befallen an Illinois State team that many observers figured would challenge Creighton for the regular-season championship.
The 0-5 start has dashed any talk about being a title contender. Now, the only thing that consumes Illinois State coach Dan Muller is trying to figure out a way to pull his team out of its tailspin.
“Things have snowballed on us, but we can't make excuses,” Muller said. “We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We're in the situation we put ourselves in, and we just need guys out there playing for each other and playing hard.”
Muller inherited a team stamped as a championship contender when he took over last spring for Tim Jankovich. The Redbirds returned all but one of their key contributors from a team that came within an eyelash of beating Creighton in the Valley tournament championship game and making it to the NCAA tournament.
They had one of the best big men in the league in 6-foot-9 Jackie Carmichael and an explosive perimeter threat in Tyler Brown. Finding a point guard to replace Nic Moore, who followed Jankovich to Southern Methodist, was a concern, but that was eased by the early season play of Johnny Hill and Kaza Keane.
Illinois State made it through nonconference play with a 9-3 record. The Redbirds were averaging 81.0 points per game and giving up 67.5.
Those averages have turned around in a league start featuring losses to Indiana State, Creighton, Northern Iowa, Missouri State and Drake. Illinois State's offensive output has fallen almost 10 points a game in conference play. It is allowing 74 points defensively.
“Our numbers are not good at all,” Muller said.
Compounding the situation was last week's news that Muller had indefinitely suspended Brown, the Redbirds' second-leading scorer, for “conduct detrimental to the team.” At the time, Muller said Brown's return would be based on “Tyler's actions moving forward.”
Asked Monday about Brown's status for Wednesday's game against Wichita State, Muller said the player remains suspended.
The suspension is among the off-the-court problems Muller said have distracted his team. He did not like the approach his players had when they returned from a short Christmas break.
“It really comes down to guys being focused and what their motivation is,” Muller said. “Most of our guys — almost all of them — have kept a great attitude through all this. Guys like Jackie Carmichael and Johnny Hill and Bryant Allen have tried to lead and keep this team together.
“Even though we're not playing well, we have stayed together for the most part. To get through this, you have to do it with leadership and you also have to do it on game night. We need to get a little more of that.”
The Redbirds have dug themselves a hole that, historically, few teams have been able to overcome. A loss Wednesday to the Shockers would leave Illinois State 0-6 with 12 games to play.
In the Valley's 105-year history, 52 teams have started conference play 0-6. Thirty-five of those teams wound up finishing in last place while just one rebounded to finish in the top five.
Muller knows one victory might be what it takes to start a turnaround. At the same time, he is well aware that what ails his team might not be quick-fixed.
“If we could get a win, that would give us some confidence,” Muller said. “But we can't wait to get a win to get confidence. We have to play well so that we can win.”
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