ISU's Jackie Carmichael goes up for a shot. (Photo by B Corbin/WJBC)
By Bryan Bloodworth
When Dan Muller was introduced as the new men's basketball coach at Illinois State in May, he promised to upgrade the Redbirds' schedule - a knock against former Coach Tim Jankovich before he moved to his new job at SMU.
Muller begins to deliver on his promise Saturday when the Redbirds travel to Louisville to face the No. 5 nationally ranked Cardinals at noon.
And It's a win-win situation for the Redbirds regardless of the outcome.
Not only will it help the Redbirds' strength of schedule in the RPI rankings, but ISU also receives a $90,000 paycheck to play in a guarantee game because Louisville won't make a return visit to ISU.
The money is a mere drop in the bucket for Louisville, which generally makes in the neighborhood of $800,000 or more at all home games with ticket sales, concessions, liquor sales, etc.
"When we got here we had four games to schedule and I wanted to play someone really, really good," said Muller. "Having a kid (Tyler Brown) from Owensboro (Kentucky), who was a senior was part of it. I'd like to get games close to all the kids' hometowns if possible during their careers.
"We played Louisville last year when I was at Vanderbilt, so I had a relationship with Coach (Rick) Pitino. I knew their style and knew it would be a good game for us. Plus, this is an RPI game no matter what win or lose because Louisville is a team that will finish in the top 10 most likely."
Having coached against Louisville last year, Muller knows what type of atmosphere the Redbirds will face in the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center.
"It's an opportunity for our guys to go into a tough environment in a big-time arena against one of the best teams in the country," said Muller. "Our guys will be excited once game time comes and I'll be excited to see how we perform against a good team.
"We want to be able to play and compete against anybody in the country, anywhere, any time. We do have experienced guys, who have played in tough games in tough arenas. Hopefully that will help us. We just need to embrace the challenge."
ISU senior forward Jackie Carmichael said the Redbirds are ready for the challenge.
"We just have to go in there and play our style of basketball," added Carmichael. "We know they are a really good team, but we can't be scared of them. Any basketball player looks forward to this, especially playing someone of their caliber is huge. You don't get this chance very often. We're just going to try and take full advantage of it."
Both teams have 5-1 records. Louisville's lone loss was 76-71 to Duke in the Bahamas last week. The Cardinals defeated Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Conference, 51-46, earlier in the year.
"One thing Coach Pitino does, which is an incredible skill as a coach, is that he gets his team to play unbelievably hard," Muller continued. "If I can get my teams over the years to play as hard as he gets his teams to play, then I'll have a chance to be a good coach.
"Louisville is talented. They are deep and they get after you. They are fast and quick. They press most of the game, but their pressure is not great most of the time. They go on runs where it just picks up and they turn teams over in waves."
The Cardinals are forcing 20 turnovers per game and averaging 11 steals.
"It's all about ball care and getting open shots for your teammates," Muller continued. "It's about staying composed. Louisville's defense is so good that you have to be ready and able to shoot when you have the opportunity. Because if you don't take that one shot that might be a good shot, you may not get another good one."
Muller added that the Redbirds will try to continue to push the ball up the floor against the Cardinals.
"But it's hard to push the ball after makes against them because they jump up in the press," said Muller. "Will we be able to push the ball as fast against them as other teams? Probably not, but I want our guys to have a confident mindset and I think we're playing our best when we have an attacking mindset offensively. We'll certainly run on misses if we can."
The last time the teams met
If Saturday's match-up between Illinois State and Louisville is anything like the first – and only – meeting between the schools, it should be a dandy.
A check of Redbird history shows the teams combined for 224 points to set a collegiate record at historic Freedom Hall as Louisville earned a 117-107 victory in the final game of the 1973-74 regular season. The legendary Denny Crum was the coach of the Cardinals, who at the time were members of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Like today, Louisville was highly ranked in national polls. The Cardinals had the likes of all-Americans Junior Bridgman and Allen Murphy in their line-up, while the Redbirds countered with the likes of Ron deVries, Bubbles Hawkins and Rick Whitlow.
deVries, who was playing in his final game as a Redbird, scored 17 points and pulled down 19 rebounds, while Hawkins scored 29 points. But it was Whitlow, who stole the show.
The junior guard burned the nets for 26 of his game-high 38 points in the first half.
Condolences to Nedu family
The ISU basketball family lost one of its former members last week when 29-year-old Nedu Onyeuku was fatally shot while breaking into a home in Plano, Texas, according to police. Nedu played for the Redbirds from 2004-06.
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org