Redbirds remain among the ranks of the unbeaten

December, 22, 2008

Pitt and Clemson remained undefeated Sunday night.

Connecticut, Minnesota, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Stanford and Ohio State all won over the weekend to remain unblemished, too.

BYU, Xavier and LSU were the three that suffered a loss for the first time this season.

Illinois State is still standing, though, just like the aforementioned nine schools without a loss. The Redbirds went to 11-0 with a home win over the same Illinois-Chicago team that won at Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt.

While Minnesota and Stanford might be the biggest surprises of the remaining unbeatens, Illinois State can't be far behind. The Redbirds weren't supposed to be this good, this fast.

ISU is still without Bobby Hill, who suffered an ACL injury in a summer pick-up game. The former Illinois State guard (2006-07) returned to the team after a stint last season at Lincoln (Ill.) College, where he was a first-team JC All-American.

Sophomore guard Alex Rubin also hasn't played this season due to a broken foot.

Beyond the injuries, the Redbirds lost three of their top four scorers from last season's 25-win team that finished second to Drake in the Missouri Valley Conference.

But what no one knew, not even Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, was how much of an impact Oregon transfer Champ Oguchi would have. Oguchi is leading the Redbirds in scoring at 16.2 points, just ahead of leading returning scorer Osiris Eldridge (15.2 ppg), who was predicted by many as the MVC Player of the Year. The tandem is playing well enough that Illinois State, not Creighton or Southern Illinois, likely heads into the Missouri Valley play as the league favorite. This from the program that has the conference's longest current NCAA tourney drought, having not qualified for the tournament since 1998.

"I've been very, very surprised with the start," Jankovich said. "We've got a lot of guys who can shoot and really spread the floor."

The second-year coach said the success the Redbirds had last season instilled pride in the culture of Illinois State basketball again. He said there seems to be a different level of concentration and toughness at the outset this season.

As for Oguchi, Jankovich said he didn't see him play at Oregon, but his athleticism, ability to make jump shots and play a few different positions is making him effective.

But as marvelous as the start has been for Illinois State, reality will hit the Redbirds if they don't win the Valley.

Jankovich said what he learned last season was how few at-large spots to the NCAA tournament are available to non-BCS members.

"Only six teams got invited that weren't in BCS conferences, so that means there are roughly 270 schools that are fighting for those six spots," Jankovich said. "We have to be in that top six. I don't think most fans understand that. You have to be nearly flawless. You have to be in an elite group. That's an amazingly tall order."

Jankovich, a former assistant under head coaches Bill Self and Kevin Stallings, said BCS-member schools can finish in the middle of their league standings and get a bid. This is true.

"But for us, the non-BCS schools," he added, "it's not just finishing higher in our leagues."

In other words, Illinois State better win the league's regular-season title if it doesn't win the conference tournament.

"You can't stub your toe," Jankovich said.

The toe has been unblemished so far this season.

• With a minute left, Florida State was tied 48-48 with Pittsburgh. The Seminoles didn't score again, as Pitt rolled off the game's final eight points. The Panthers proved Sunday night that they are one of the nation's elite teams. Pitt took the game over when it mattered most and shook off a horrible night of shooting, especially from Levance Fields, who was 1-of-10.

"Our defense was really good," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said late Sunday night after his team improved to 12-0. "We had foul trouble, didn't shoot it well and beat a pretty good team."

Dixon said taking 11 months off from basketball isn't a good regimen for a player to return to top form. But that's what Fields had to go through coming back from a broken foot. Getting Fields on track from the perimeter may take a bit more time.

This was Pitt's first true road game of the season. As for FSU, it missed on a golden opportunity to improve its resume, with a road loss to Northwestern being the only previous blemish. Florida State owns a home win over Florida and neutral-site wins over Cincinnati and Cal.

• Clemson's 91-72 victory at Miami to open the ACC may have been one of the more impressive wins of the past two weeks. The Tigers had great balance, had a big-time scorer deliver in K.C. Rivers (28 points) and are now looking like a real threat to contend for a top-three finish in the ACC. The Tigers are 12-0 with a neutral-site win over Temple, a road win at Illinois and now a pounding at Miami. The Tigers have three solid non-conference tests in front of them before they resume ACC play: a road game at rival South Carolina and home contests against East Carolina and Alabama.

• The late turnovers by Jeremy Pargo against Connecticut were in part due to his cramping, according to the Gonzaga staff. That might explain why Pargo didn't feel he could get by UConn's guards the way he could earlier in Saturday's game. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Pargo was as down on himself as he has been in any previous game. Pargo finished with five turnovers in 39 minutes in the 88-83 overtime loss to Connecticut, perhaps college basketball's game of the season to date.

• Few admitted he may need to re-evaluate his program's scheduling. The Zags will get a tough test from Big Sky favorite Portland State on Tuesday and then make consecutive road trips to Utah (Dec. 31) and Tennessee (Jan. 7). The Zags will have played only two home games from Nov. 18 to Jan. 10. That just doesn't make sense for an elite program.

• The Colonial Athletic Association isn't bending on its rule that if a coach gets tossed out of a game he must sit out the next. So Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, who received two technical fouls Saturday in an 81-75 loss at Bucknell, can't coach against his former boss, John Calipari, in Monday afternoon's game at Memphis. Drexel took a chartered flight from Bucknell to Memphis, so Flint is on the trip. He coached practice Sunday, will coach shootaround Monday and then will watch the game in his sweats, likely in Calipari's office. To be fair, Calipari should return the game to Drexel since he's missing out on coaching against Flint. "I'm still the one assistant he hasn't coached against," Flint said. Drexel assistant Mike Connors, who was the director of basketball operations when Calipari was the head coach at UMass and Flint was an assistant, will coach the Dragons in Flint's absence. Flint said he can't stay at the hotel to watch the game since the team is flying back to Philadelphia right after the game.

• George Gervin is arguably the best player to come out of Eastern Michigan. The "Iceman" was my favorite player when he was playing with the San Antonio Spurs. Yet, only 803 fans showed up in Ypsilanti for George Gervin Day as EMU lost to St. Bonaventure 86-78 on Saturday.

• Wright State 60, South Florida 43 in San Juan on Sunday: Ouch. The Bulls' Dominique Jones was 0-for-12 from the field. Hyped new arrivals Augustus Gilchrist and Mike Mercer were a combined 2-of-11 for four points. The Bulls were 5-of-22 on 3-pointers. It's not a reach to say that USF may go oh-fer in the Big East this season.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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