NEWS

Success will bring red back to Redbird

KIRK WESSLER

Illinois State won its seventh men’s basketball game in a row Tuesday night, the program’s longest such streak in seven years.

Five thousand eighty-two people witnessed the Redbirds take sole possession of first place in the Missouri Valley, with a 4-0 record, one-half game ahead of Drake and Indiana State. Five thousand one hundred eighteen empty seats saw them do it, too.

“One step at a time,” ISU athletics director Sheahon Zenger said of half-empty Redbird Arena, once a jam-packed pain in the ears anytime ISU took the court.

The place was much closer to full Saturday, when 9,437 cheered ISU’s thumping of preseason MVC favorite Southern Illinois. But for the most part it’s taking a while for fans to get excited about a team with designs on returning Illinois State to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.

“Saturday’s game was a huge breakthrough for us,” Zenger said. “There’s a real buzz in the community. I would think Saturdays and Sundays, we’ll continue to see bigger crowds, and maybe weekdays we’ll be in the 7,000-8,000 range.

“But from my experience in other places before coming here, you can’t get the cart before the horse.”

That’s a fair description of what happened to the Redbirds a year ago, when they went 8-3 in the nonconference season, then won only six of 18 Valley games to finish tied for seventh.

“We were all big-headed last year,” senior point guard Boo Richardson said. “We came in here with junior college all-Americans and high school studs, and then when the league started, we saw how tough Bradley was, how tough Creighton was, how tough Southern was. They were good.”

And ISU was not. In fact, as most people around here knew — especially the people who make up the Redbirds’ own fan base — the Birds haven’t been good for quite a while. In the past five seasons, they’ve finished eighth, 10th, sixth, ninth and seventh in the 10-team Valley.

That convinced Zenger it was time to change head coaches. So he jettisoned Porter Moser and brought in Tim Jankovich, whose coaching journey across America has led him through the staffs of the late Jack Hartman, Eddie Sutton, Lon Kruger, Kevin Stallings and Bill Self, among others.

“That’s an unbelievable pedigree,” Zenger said. “When you work with the masters, you’re going to learn.”

The ISU players are learning quickly from Jankovich. It’s obvious as soon as they walk onto the court for tipoff. This is mostly the same cast of characters in uniform who played much of last season with a what-can-go-wrong-next mentality. And now they’re swaggering at 12-3, with a bullet.

A year ago, they likely would have lost Tuesday night, after blowing a 20-point lead to Northern Iowa. One bad thing would have led to another, and the Redbirds would have started pointing fingers at each other and quit playing.

“We didn’t know how to win,” sophomore star Osiris Eldridge said. “Now we’re learning how to finish games.”

After letting UNI knock 19 points off the 20-point margin Tuesday, the Redbirds regrouped in the final minute, got the stops and rebounds and found a way to prevail, 51-46.

“Our coaches keep telling us, ‘Don’t be afraid to lose. Be afraid not to play hard,’” Richardson said.

The Redbirds are thriving under Jankovich, who is as laid back on the sideline as Moser was manic. Jank’s demeanor seems to have a calming effect, despite the high intensity with which his guys play. They play loose and free on offense, and they’re tight and in your face on defense. They carry themselves with an attitude entirely different from the past few years. They’re confident, not cocky. Unafraid, not timid.

The payoff is getting bigger by the game, even if ISU fans have been a little slow to believe it’s for real.

Richardson shrugged.

“If we keep playing hard,” he said, “the red will come back to the crowd.”

KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Contact him at (309) 686-3216 or kwessler@pjstar.com.