The Ramblers are picked to finish ninth the Missouri Valley Conference according to the preseason poll.
WHERE TO WATCH: ILLINOIS STATE VS. LOYOLA
Comcast SportsNet Chicago PLUS: Comcast: 101, 102, DirecTV: 666, AT&T U-Verse: 1742
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ESPN3 (subject to blackouts): WatchESPN.com / http://es.pn/MBK-ULCvsILST
HOME COURT ADVANTAGE
With Illinois State's 66-48 win over Southern Illinois Jan. 5, the Redbirds have now won five-consecutive games on Doug Collins Court at Redbird Arena, marking ISU's longest home-court winning streak since earning six-straight home victories in 2011-12. In his second season, Redbird head coach Dan Muller is now 16-7 at Redbird Arena.
MAKING A STATE-MENT
Illinois State will try to remain perfect against in-state opponents when the Redbirds host Loyola Saturday evening. So far this season, ISU has gone 4-0 against teams from Illinois, with the Redbirds earning wins over Northwestern (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Dec. 4), DePaul (Dec. 22) and Southern Illinois (Jan. 5). Including Saturday's Loyola game, ISU has four more opportunities for victories against in-state rivals.
For just the second time in Illinois State's NCAA Division I era, the Redbirds will face a former ISU head coach when Loyola skipper Porter Moser brings the Ramblers to Redbird Arena Saturday. Moser coached ISU from 2003-07, compiling a 56-71 (.441) record, and Saturday marks his first matchup against Illinois State since departing. The only other former ISU head coach who later faced the Redbirds was Gene Smithson, who coached at Illinois State from 1975-78, before facing ISU as Wichita State's head coach from 1978-86. Smithson and the Shockers played ISU 10 times during his tenure, with the Redbirds earning a 6-4 record against their former frontman.
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 experienced Redbird team, which included four seniors and just two scholarship-newcomers. Last year's ISU team was 9-6 and 0-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference after its first 15 games, while the 2013-14 Redbirds are currently 8-7 and 1-2 in the Valley.
The Redbirds feature some of the Missouri Valley Conference's top newcomers. Junior college transfer Bobby Hunter currently ranks No. 1 among league-newcomers with 1.7 steals per game, while freshman Paris Lee is second with 1.5 steals. Meanwhile, junior college transfer Daishon Knight ranks third among newcomers with 13.6 points per game, and fifth in rebounding, with 4.5 boards. Knight is a three-time Valley Newcomer of the Week, which ties Loyola's Milton Doyle for most by a single player this season.
Illinois State will try to bounce back after falling at No. 6 Wichita State, 66-47, Wednesday night. Despite holding the Shockers to their lowest offensive output so far during their 16-0 season, the Redbirds were also limited to their lowest output since also netting 47 points in a 55-47 loss at Fresno State Nov. 11, 2011. Fortunately, ISU has exemplified a short-term memory this season, bouncing back to go 5-2 overall following losses, and 2-1 at home following a defeat.
BLOCKED BY LYNCH
After leading the state of Minnesota in high school blocked shots during the last two years, freshman center 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 50th in the nation (2.3 per game). Throughout the first 15 games, Lynch has blocked at least one shot in 14 contests and three or more in eight games, with a career-high four blocks recorded at Wichita State Wednesday night. He has 35 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 13 times.
Illinois State has prided itself on executing effective 2-3 zone defense this season. The Redbirds' defensive discipline was highlighted during the Jan. 5 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.
Along with freshman guard Reggie Lynch's Valley-best 2.3 blocks per game, he is also leading the league in field goal percentage at 62.3 percent (43-for-69). Meanwhile, teammate Bobby Hunter ranks No. 1 in MVC three-point shooting with a 51.5 percent average (17-for-33). As a team, Illinois State ranks first in Valley three-pointers - and 50th in the nation - (7.9 per game) and second in league blocks (4.3).
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 71.2 (+2.8) per game while shooting 41.0 percent (+2.7) and holding opponents to 41.1 percent (-4.6) through their last 10 games (7-3).
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 6.4 points per game compared to a 5.3 average after 15 games last season, and Keane is averaging 3.5 compared to 3.4. Zeisloft, who now often plays the four position, has more-than doubled his rebounding average from 1.7 at this time last year to 4.1 currently.
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 11 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-10 games with the smaller lineup, but they have earned a 4.3 scoring margin, plus a +1.7 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.
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