Illinois State fans hope the Redbirds have the magic to win their first Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title since 1998. (Photo by B Corbin/WJBC)
By Bryan Bloodworth
Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller believes whichever team plays at “that magic level” will win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament this weekend in St. Louis.
And the first-year coach obviously hopes it’s the Redbirds, who open tournament play Friday at 8:35 p.m. against Northern Iowa. ISU has a 17-14 record and the No. 6 seed, while the Panthers are the No. 3 seed with an 18-13 mark.
“Whoever wins this weekend is going to play at that magic level for the most part,” said Muller. “They are going to guard. Defensively they are going to play and we know we’re capable.”
Muller also said his team is excited about the event, which they have reached the title game five times without winning since 1998 when the Redbirds earned the title and the school’s last NCAA Tournament berth.
“I think (the players) have confidence,” said Muller. “I think they know what we can do if we play well for three straight days. And I think they know the challenge is going to be enormous with whoever we play.”
The Redbirds will be facing a Northern Iowa team that has beaten it twice this year, including an 80-72 decision six days ago in Cedar Falls.
“We’ll certainly make adjustments and so will they,” Muller continued. “They made some adjustments on defense from the first time we played them that hurt us a little bit. And they really hurt us on the boards.”
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson isn’t thrilled about playing the Redbirds in back-to-back games.
“I’d rather play somebody different,” he said. “ISU obviously has played very well over course of the last month and a half. Our game (last) Saturday could have gone either way. It was a possession game. It should be a good basketball game.
Jacobson also dismissed the fact his team dominated the rebounding category.
“Carmichael got in foul trouble and had to sit minutes he normally would be in,” Jacobson continued. “It disrupted his rhythm and had an impact on the rebounding numbers.
”And I think they had to play a 2-3 zone more than maybe they wanted. We were able to get some offensive rebounds we might not have gotten.”
Muller was a player for the Redbirds the last time they won the tournament, but he hasn’t dwelled on the fact with this year’s team.
“I haven’t talked much about my playing days, but I did tell them I know how much fun it is to win,” he said. “I want them to experience that.”
He added the team that wins the tournament has to have the proper mindset.
“You have to win three in a row and you have to get in a mindset of just playing and not worrying about anything else,” he said. “You can’t have any negative thoughts, which we try to do throughout the regular season. That can be easier to do in a condensed three-game, three-day situation.
“Whoever wins conference tournaments across the country is going to play with great confidence, great passion and play to win. That’s what you do at tournament time.”