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Redbirds now must wait and hope after MVC final loss

March 8, 2017 Columns No Comments

A highly anticipated Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game was not the contest most expected or hoped for. And now, with its NCAA Tournament fate no longer in its own hands, it’s going to be a long week of waiting for Illinois State.

The Redbirds did not play well against Wichita State in the championship game of the MVC Tournament, falling 71-51. ISU shot a season-low 29.3%, made 6 of 28 from three-point range one day after draining 13 three-pointers in a dominant win over Southern Illinois, and never led in the game.

“Congratulations to Wichita State, terrific game, terrific season so far,” said Redbirds head coach Dan Muller. “We picked a bad day to have a bad day, especially shooting the ball. Certainly part of it was their defense, but part of it was us.

“Obviously, we’re looking forward to playing again this year. We’re hopeful. But just got beat by a good team today (that) played better than us.”

It was an eminently promising game coming in, as the regular season co-champions Redbirds and Shockers looked outstanding in the quarterfinals and semifinals getting to the game. The final product was disappointing. It was ragged, both ways-especially in the second half-and Illinois State never got on track.

Much more discouraging was the way the Redbirds went out. Frustrated after some notably inconsistent officiating all day that too often worked against it, ISU players were called for three technicals in the final 10 minutes. A still-competitive game devolved in the game’s stretch into a convincing knockout win for the Shockers.

“We can’t control that right now,” said Muller afterwards of the final impression his team might’ve left the NCAA selection committee. “Obviously, it’s past this. We didn’t play well. Like I said, Wichita State had a lot to do with it. The foul trouble early really debilitated us. Our rotations were really messed up, and we had a couple guys have tough days.

“If they go based on one game they saw-probably don’t watch as many games of ours as they watch other teams, but hopefully they’ll look at the full body of work we have, and obviously, we want to be in.”

Some will debate exactly what to make of Illinois State’s body of work, which is this: a 27-6 overall record, a 17-1 mark on the way to a Valley regular season co-championship, and very few of the glossy wins the selection committee always is looking for, especially in recent years. The Redbirds are 2-4 against the RPI top 100, with their best win over Wichita State, their second-best against New Mexico.

There ought to be something to be said for a regular season title in the No. 12-ranked league in the RPI-there used to be, and we’d contest all day there should still be. The same goes for consistently defeating even RPI 100-200 teams home and away, as the Redbirds did in Valley play.

The Redbirds will also be a test for the selection committee’s declaration that it considers injuries in making selection and seeding decisions. Our suspicion long has been that this is something the committee does when it benefits brand name schools that it is looking for reasons to shoehorn into the field or a better seed, yet conveniently forgets when it comes to schools out of the spotlight.

Illinois State has exactly two losses this year when it was at full strength: against Wichita State on Sunday, and in the Diamond Head Classic semifinals against a hot-shooting San Francisco team that also had defeated Pac-12 Utah the game before. In particular, star MiKyle McIntosh did not play in the second game against the Shockers, and key frontcourt reserve Daouda Ndiaye missed the season’s first nine games with an injury.

This is a different Illinois State team now than at the beginning of the season. Close early losses to Murray State, Tulsa and even TCU also came with Ndiaye out and well before the Birds hit their stride. Teams change, and when it came down to it, ISU went 17-1 in a conference that ranked among the top 40% in the country.

Whether the eye test should have a place in the selection process is always a worthy debate. Saturday and Sunday’s Illinois State games, though, are a reminder that, if the committee is going to use the eye test, it better be using it thoroughly.

If anyone watched ISU’s destruction of Southern Illinois the day before, when it led the Salukis by 31 points with 15 minutes left, their eyes would’ve shown a team fully capable of winning more than once in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, most weren’t watching that game on CBS Sports Network. More were watching on Sunday, on national television, at a time far fewer games were being played, and against a higher-profile opponent.

One sure hopes the selection committee goes into more depth than many did immediately after the final, proclaiming Illinois State out after an admittedly rough performance. It used to do that just a few years back, when teams like Boise State, Iona, and Middle Tennessee State and Murray State were selected and seeded fairly (and we’d say properly) for consistent winning, even if the wins weren’t always against the top of the top. Similar teams like Colorado State, Monmouth, St. Bonaventure and Saint Mary’s in recent years, though, show the committee regularly will look for ways to keep a team like Illinois State out and put a team like Kansas State or Vanderbilt in.

One thing the Redbirds did not do was play the margin of victory game that so-called advanced metrics reward so handsomely.

In the previous game against Wichita State, Muller began pulling his starters out of the game with 13 minutes left, perhaps out of frustration, perhaps in simple realization that the cause was lost and there was no point risking further injury. The Redbirds lost by 41 points, but perhaps that margin is 20-25 if he does the opposite and keeps his starters in the entire way, even when MiKyle McIntosh was injured.

The same was true on Saturday where, in keeping his team fresh for Sunday’s final, Muller substituted freely the final 10 minutes and not a single starter played more than 24 minutes. Southern Illinois did not, and the Salukis cut a 31-point deficit to 13 at the end. To some computer formulas, Wichita State’s 78-63 win over Missouri State in a much more hard-fought game Saturday was a better performance than ISU’s blowout of SIU. Anyone who watched the games knows otherwise.

There’s no doubt the Redbirds’ resume is not as shiny as many would like. Illinois State played incredibly tough non-conference schedules the last two years, but lightened up some this year. Even so, like Wichita State, the schedule graded out worse than it would have a year ago, as Hawaii, Saint Joseph’s and Tulsa were all in the NCAA Tournament a year ago but slipped this year.

As is so often the case with teams like Illinois State, there must be nuance in evaluating them. ISU can’t control its conference schedule, and there’s only so much it can control its non-conference slate, too. Expecting a team to face 12 top 50 opponents is unreasonable when its league doesn’t have the finances to play 75% of its non-conference games at home.

Still, the Redbirds did themselves no favors with their final performance in St. Louis. Now they can only hope that, for the selection committee, their last impression is not the most lasting one of their season.

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