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Redbirds ready to step into spotlight

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- More than 150 Division I teams hit the road during any given weekend of the women's college basketball season. A few boast rosters stocked with All-Americans and play in front of national television audiences. Most move along quieter routes. But somewhere out amongst the shared anonymity of carryout dinners, inquisitive glances and hotel key cards, in cities stretching from Orono, Maine, to Corvallis, Ore., there is a team that will do extraordinary things on a different kind of road trip in March.

Appropriately enough, every Illinois State trip begins by leaving Normal behind, because few teams this season are better equipped to make an extraordinary journey than this one.

Illinois State is 14-1 overall and 4-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, with road wins at Evansville, Southern Illinois and Bradley already this new year. Unranked in both major polls, the Redbirds have reached the NCAA Tournament just once since 1989 -- and that came with a surprise win in the 2005 conference tournament after an eighth-place finish in the league regular-season race. Yet it's a program that has traveled in one decisive direction since coach Robin Pingeton's arrival five years ago.

The road isn't always a glamorous place in the Missouri Valley Conference. Illinois State has it better than some, chartering flights to some of the more far-flung conference destinations -- any bus trip much longer than two movies, in Pingeton's favored measure of distance. But it's a long road the Redbirds hope will take them the same place it took mid-major success stories like Marist, Liberty and Wisconsin-Green Bay in recent seasons. Maybe even a road that reaches its terminus at the Final Four, as it did for conference rival Missouri State during the school's semifinal run in 2001.

For Pingeton, it's a road that already took her from Iowa to Illinois and from the driver's seat of a crowded rental van to the catbird seat in a comfortable charter bus on the way to practice the night before an 82-78 win against the Salukis in Carbondale.

Like Pat Summitt, one of the coaches she counts as a primary inspiration, Pingeton took a more direct route than most to the first chair on the sideline. Less than two years into a job as an assistant at Drake after her own standout playing career at St. Ambrose College, Pingeton left to take over her alma mater. Still unsure whether she wanted to pursue a long-term career in business or coaching, she found herself in the uniquely uncomfortable position of learning the ropes at the expense of former teammates.

"I look back and think I don't know if I could have played for myself at that time," Pingeton admitted. "But the people I really trusted and looked up to at that point in my coaching career encouraged me to go in and maybe be a little harder, and you can always lighten up."

The transition from teammate to authority figure wasn't made any easier by moments like the time the team arrived in Florida for a road trip, only to find out neither the coach nor anyone else in the traveling party was old enough to get the keys to the rental van.

But there were few such awkward moments on the court, where Pingeton's first team went 23-8. In eight seasons at St. Ambrose, where she remains the school's all-time leading scorer, her teams went 194-76 and twice reached the quarterfinals of the NAIA Tournament. Firmly entrenched in coaching by that point, she moved on for three years as Bill Fennelly's assistant at Iowa State. While in Ames, she recruited former Cyclones standout Lyndsey Medders and was part of a team that went to the Sweet 16 in 2001.

So by the time she was named head coach at Illinois State in the spring of 2003, she had far more experience to fall back on than might have been expected from someone who was just 34 at the time. The temptation to micromanage -- something so many first-time coaches fall victim to -- fell on deaf ears.

"I think early in my coaching career I was a lot more structured," Pingeton said. "And we ran a lot of patterns because I felt like I could be in control and know where I wanted our players to be at what time. And as I grew in the game and went to a lot of coaching clinics -- and sat down and spent a lot of time talking X's and O's with some coaches that I really have a lot of respect for -- I think you gradually evolve into your own philosophy and style."

The result, like a Brazilian soccer team, is an offense that at its best seems to come alive.

"I really love the motion offense," Pingeton said with genuine affection. "You just teach your kids how to play. Instead of running a pattern, you teach your kids how to play the game. The kind of athletes that we've been able to bring in to Illinois State, they want to play; they don't want to be in a structured system. So I think it's a fun style to coach, and it's a fun style to play."

It's a sales pitch that worked on Kristi Cirone, a decorated prep player out of Chicago who was All-State her last two seasons in high school and earned McDonald's All-American consideration as a senior before signing on at Illinois State.

"I came from a style of play in high school that was like that," Cirone said. "I don't think I'm the type of player who would like to stop and set up a play every single time down."

Illinois State is hardly unique in pursuing an up-tempo style with a motion offense. What makes the Redbirds stand out is the way they do it without sacrificing possession. As of the NCAA's Jan. 13 statistics, Connecticut and LSU were the only teams in the country with a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Illinois State. And despite playing one less game than LSU, Illinois State had more total assists (295 to LSU's 282).

That's rather remarkable ball control for a team that ranks ninth in the country in scoring (78.2 ppg).

It starts with Cirone. The reigning MVC player of the year is a multi-faceted scorer who leads the team in points, 3-pointers and free-throw attempts. But she might be even better at helping others score. She's fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and is one of just two players in the top 15 in that category, along with George Washington's Kim Beck, averaging more than 4.8 assists per game (she's averaging 7.0 assists).

"I think she's the best point guard, one of the best point guards in the country," sophomore sharpshooter Maggie Krick said. "Everything from the lack of turnovers to the style we play just all starts with her. She's the catalyst for our whole offense."

That's exactly what a coach who once wanted total control hoped would happen when she named Cirone a captain as a freshman and gave her the keys to the offense.

"She is a unique player," Pingeton said. "She's an extension of me on the court; I think she understands my expectations, being a vocal leader -- I've kind of had to force that on her. I think it's out of her comfort zone, but it's been amazing to see how much she's grown every year."

The coach said she never wavered for a second in handing the captaincy to a freshman, especially after holding numerous impromptu state-of-the-program discussions with Cirone before the guard ever set foot on campus. But even for the daughter of two basketball coaches in Frank and Eileen Cirone, the rare responsibility weighed heavily.

"I'm not going to lie; it wasn't the easiest thing," Cirone said. "Especially with personality -- I came in being laid back. I knew that I had to voice my opinion at times. That's kind of hard as a freshman to do that, especially with older people on the team. But I had a lot of help with it. Coach P was always riding me in a good way, telling me different things I needed to do just to help improve my leadership."

The 5-foot-8 Cirone still casts an unassuming shadow and talks with the quiet reserve of someone who has spent a lot of solo hours growing comfortable with the rhythmic cadences of a ball swishing through a net and bouncing back to waiting hands. Which isn't to say she cuts anything less than an imposing figure on the court. Backcourt mate Tiffany Hudson, a prep teammate of Candace Parker, allowed that as different as her current and former teammates are in almost every facet of their games, they share a sense of poise on the court that encourages teammates to follow rather than watch.

Illinois State is also more than just its gifted point guard. Beyond Cirone at just more than 16 points per game, five players average between 8.6 and 13.0 points per game. Hudson and Krick shoot a combined 40 percent from behind the arc and each averages better than three assists per game alongside Cirone in the backcourt. Nicolle Lewis is a 6-foot-6 post who shots 56 percent from the floor despite displaying range that allows her to step out to the fringe of the arc. And in Ashleen Bracey and Kenyatta Shelton, the Redbirds have two athletic and aggressive rebounders with the size and agility to stick with almost any forwards or wings a power-conference team wants to throw at them.

The end product is a team that has come a remarkable distance from when Pingeton took over a program coming off four consecutive seasons of single-digit wins. It's the kind of success born out of finding the right coach with the right philosophy who recruits the right players. And it's a success with a value all its own, as Hudson demonstrated when, much to her surprise, she momentarily choked up in thinking about the work put in over her four seasons. But it's also a team that recognizes its potential to go one more step.

As Cirone put it, "So much hard work has been put into it that just seeing it pay off, and knowing that we need to work that much harder again just to get that next level is an exciting feeling."

Sometimes extraordinary is in the last place you think to look. It might even be riding a bus to practice through the darkened streets of a small Midwestern college town, just like a hundred other teams. And at the same time, nothing like them at all.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.