The Shockers are picked to win the Missouri Valley Conference according to the official preseason poll, and senior forward Cleanthony Early is the Valley Preseason Player of the Year.
WHERE TO WATCH: ISU AT WICHITA STATE
ESPN3 - http://es.pn/MBK-ILSTvsWICHITA
LAST MEETING: ILLINOIS STATE FALLS IN SEMIFINALS TO WICHITA STATE, 66-51
ST. LOUIS (March 9, 2013) - Illinois State overcame a 16-point first-half deficit to take a one-point lead early in the second half, but Wichita State pulled away late to beat the Redbirds, 66-51, in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals at Scottrade Center. Jackie Carmichael scored a game-high 22 points for the No. 6-seeded Redbirds (18-15), who beat No. 3-seeded Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals, but could not continue their Valley Tournament run. Illinois State was held to a season-low 29.1 percent from the field, while the Shockers (26-7) shot 41.1 percent.
FOR COMPARISON'S SAKE
Despite Illinois State featuring what is believed to be the least-experienced team in the nation, this year's Redbird squad (which features eight newcomers to NCAA Division I basketball on the current active roster) is just one game off the pace of last year's much more experience Redbird team, which included four seniors and just two scholarship-newcomers. Last year's ISU team was 9-5 and 0-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference after its first 14 games, while the 2013-14 Redbirds are currently 8-6 and 1-1 in the Valley.
Illinois State has prided itself on executing effect 2-3 zone defense this season. The Redbirds' defensive discipline was highlighted during Sunday afternoon's win over Southern Illinois, as ISU held the Salukis to a season-low 48 points on 31.5 percent shooting. SIU's 17 second-half points not only marked the fewest allowed by the Redbirds in a half this season, but it was also just two shy of SIU's school-record low of 15 points in a half set against Kentucky Wesleyan in 1965. The last time ISU held a team below 50 points was when Southern Illinois scored 47 on Feb. 2, 2013, and the last time the Redbirds held a team to less than 20 points in a half was when Northern Iowa scored 17 on March 2, 2012.
Redshirt junior guard Bobby Hunter led Illinois State in scoring - along with Zach Lofton - (13.0 points per game) and steals (2.5 per game), as the Redbirds went 1-1 with an overtime loss at Missouri State followed by a decisive home victory over Southern Illinois last week. Hunter helped ISU extend its home winning streak to five games. The Reno, Nev., native came off the bench in both contests to shoot a team-best 62.5 percent (5-for-8) from beyond the arc, along with a 53.8 percent clip from the field and a 77.8 percent mark at the free throw line, plus 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per contest. Hunter ranked second on the team with 59 minutes played throughout the two games while amassing a 2.50 assist-to-turnover ratio.
ZACH IS BACK
After earning double-figures in seven-straight games to start the season, sophomore guard Zach Lofton was held under double-figures in three out of his next four. However, over the last three games, Lofton has bounced back by exemplifying his scoring prowess with 13.3 points per contest. In the Redbirds' win over Southern Illinois Sunday afternoon, Lofton scored a team-high 18 points - one shy of a career-high - while matching his career-mark with four three-pointers.
BLOCKED BY LYNCH
After leading the state of Minnesota in high school blocked shots during the last two years, freshman guard Reggie Lynch has effectively transferred his shot-blocking skills to the NCAA Division I level. Lynch has consistently led the Missouri Valley Conference in blocks this season, currently ranking first in the league and 59th in the nation (2.2 per game). Throughout the first 14 games, Lynch has blocked at least one shot in 13 contests and at least three in seven games. He has 31 total blocks as he pursues the freshman single-season blocks record of 52, set by Jon Ekey in 2010-11. Lynch has led ISU in blocks 12 times.
Along with freshman guard Reggie Lynch's Valley-best 2.2 blocks per game, he is also leading the league in field goal percentage (64.6) (42-for-65). Meanwhile, teammate Bobby Hunter ranks No. 2 in MVC three-point shooting with a 50.0 percent average (15-for-30). As a team, Illinois State ranks first in Valley three-pointers - and 52nd in the nation - (7.9 per game) and second in league blocks (4.4).
Illinois State, which is believed to have less experience than any other NCAA Division I team, has made significant progress throughout the season. In the Redbirds' first five games (1-4), ISU averaged 68.4 points while shooting 38.3 percent and allowing opponents to shoot 45.7 percent. In contrast, the Redbirds have averaged 73.9 points (+5.5) per games while shooting 41.9 percent (+3.6) and holding opponents to 41.1 percent (-4.6) through their last nine games (7-2).
EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF
Illinois State's only two scholarship-returners - Kaza Keane and Nick Zeisloft - have both increased their offensive productivity this season compared to where they were after two conference games last year. Zeisloft is now averaging 6.2 points per game compared to a 5.4 average after 13 games last season, and Keane is averaging 3.6 compared to 3.5. Zeisloft, who now often plays the four position, has more-than doubled his rebounding average from 1.8 at this time last year to 4.1 now.
DIFFICULT TO DEFEND
The Redbirds have proven to be a difficult team to defend as of late, thanks in part to ISU's four-guard, one forward starting lineup over the last 10 games. With guard Nick Zeisloft playing the four position, Illinois State's offense has thrived. The Redbirds have not only won seven-out-of-their-last-nine games with the smaller lineup, but they have earned a +5.1 scoring margin, plus a +2.1 turnover margin, contrasted with a -12.7 scoring margin and a -2.7 turnover margin during ISU's first four contests with a three-guard lineup.
REDBIRD ARENA'S SILVER ANNIVERSARY
On Jan. 11, 1989, the Illinois State men's basketball team hosted its first-ever game at the newly-opened Redbird Arena. ISU beat Chicago State that day, 71-70. Redbird Arena will celebrate its 25th anniversary as the home of ISU men's basketball Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 versus Loyola in the arena's 369th game.
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