Illinois State coach Dan Muller and guard Johnny Hill (AP)When Illinois State ended non-league play with a 9-3 record that included a quality win at Dayton, the Redbirds appeared to be on track to challenge Creighton for the Missouri Valley title and contend for an at-large NCAA bid.
Just 11 days into Valley play, however, neither of those goals seem attainable anymore.
First came a two-point loss at Indiana State and an excusable seven-point setback at home against Creighton. Up next was a demoralizing 70-60 home loss at decent-but-not-great Northern Iowa. And now panic has begun to set in among the fans after Tuesday night's 62-55 loss to woeful Missouri State relegated Illinois State to a last-place tie with Drake at 0-4 in Valley play.
The loss to Missouri State is the least forgivable because the Bears are expected to finish near the bottom of the Valley standings. Though Missouri State improved to 3-1 in league play with Tuesday's win, it's just 5-10 overall and it didn't beat a single Division I opponent until its league opener Dec. 30.
Why is Illinois State struggling the past few games? Well, simply put, the Redbirds aren't playing well on either end.
They had been shooting 50.8 percent from the field and holding opponents to 41.7 percent shooting in non-league play. In conference play, those numbers have nearly reversed, with Illinois State shooting only 41.3 percent and surrendering 47.8 percent.
The culprit offensively the past couple games has been the backcourt.
While star forward Jackie Carmichael has produced an efficient 40 points and 24 boards in the Redbirds' past two games, guards Tyler Brown and Bryant Allen are struggling. Brown, who averages 16.3 points per game, went scoreless against Missouri State and took only two shots, while Allen scored a mere four points after missing the Northern Iowa game as a result of an ankle injury.
To regain its footing in the Valley, Illinois State is going to have to clamp down on defense, find some complementary scoring for Carmichael and not allow itself to get discouraged by the poor start.
An at-large NCAA tournament bid is now a huge long shot for a program that returned the core of last year's Missouri Valley tournament finalists. Instead the new goal will be regrouping, getting back to what was working and building confidence during the rest of conference play in advance of Arch Madness in two months.