Early in the season, Illinois State appeared to be one of the Missouri Valley's true hidden gems. Tucked away in a league that was supposed to be dominated by Creighton, and overshadowed by the more recent success of Wichita State and Northern Iowa, Illinois State was the MVC team you had to dig in to appreciate.
But they were good. Forward Jackie Carmichael was one of the best rebounders in the country returning for his senior season. Tyler Brown was a star guard capable of taking on a scoring load. Bryant Allen, Johnny Hill and Jon Ekey were nice role players. The Redbirds played up tempo whenever possible, they defended well, and if someone asked a college basketball writer for an under the radar team in November, there was a decent chance we'd get around to Illinois State.
The nonconference season seemed to bear that out: ISU lost in overtime to Northwestern (before Drew Crawford's injury, mind you), were one last-second heave away from pushing Louisville to overtime at Louisville, and its only other loss came to Wyoming, which we soon saw run out to a 13-0 start. When Illinois State won at Dayton on Dec. 19, 74-73, I was hardly sure we could call it an upset. Before Dec. 30, the start of conference play, the Redbirds were 9-3. They looked like a real threat to at least push Creighton at the top of the league, and a likely candidate for a third or fourth Valley bid for the NCAA tourney.
And then the wheels came off.
When Illinois State lost to Drake at home Saturday, Dan Muller's team suffered its fifth (and probably its worst) loss in a row. Since Dec. 30, ISU has fallen to Indiana State, Creighton, UNI, Missouri State and the Bulldogs. On Wednesday, the Redbirds travel to Wichita State; it's hard to imagine them avoiding consecutive loss No. 6.
What, exactly, happened? For one, Brown was indefinitely suspended by Muller for conduct detrimental to the team Jan. 9, one day after ISU took that loss at Missouri State. For another, at the risk of oversimplifying, the Redbirds simply haven't played very good basketball. In their five conference games they're averaging .99 points per trip and allowing 1.08, both of which rank eighth in the MVC. Neither figure resembles what they did at their best early in the season, when they were a more efficient offense and a stingier defense. Mostly, ISU just hasn't made shots. Illinois State's effective field goal percentage this season is 54.4, but in its five losses it is shooting just 47.9. Sometimes, that's all it takes.
Unfortunately, that's also all it takes to knock a mid-major out of potential at-large tournament consideration. The Redbirds might have had a long-shot case at some point, depending on how well they played in the league. But to work their way into the NCAA tournament without having to best Creighton or Wichita State at Arch Madness? Now, that's their only hope.