Over the course of a long and grueling season, Redbird men’s basketball has been red hot.
On the court, this core group of student-athletes just seems to click. They know where their teammates will be, tossing up alley-oops with ease, helping on defense without a second thought, firing on all cylinders.
Where does this cohesiveness come from? The team has one shared goal: to lead the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 19 years.
The driving force behind the Redbirds’ success has been their total buy-in to head coach Dan Muller’s system. This old adage comes to mind: “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
Muller’s emphasis on defensive fundamentals has carried the Redbirds to a 25-5 overall record, with a perfect record at home in Redbird Arena, and a 21-game home winning streak dating back to last season.
On top of those impressive credentials, the Redbirds are No. 1 in the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring defense and No. 5 in the country, holding opponents to just 60.7 points per game. Add to that the fact that senior Paris Lee is the all-time steals leader in school history and opposing teams have quite a defensive force on their hands.
For loyal ‘Birds hoops supporters, the wait for a season like this hasn’t been without its fair share of ups and downs.
Over the nearly two decades since the last March Madness berth, Illinois State fans have witnessed the highest of highs, with regular season wins over top-25 ranked teams and MVC tournament championship game appearances.
But fans have also endured the lows—losing seasons, Arch Madness championship heartbreak, and that tragic April day in 2015.
But the on-court disappointments may seem like a distant memory to many after a so-far historic season.
The men’s basketball team has soared to its best conference record in program history at 17-1, while also garnering more regular season wins than any other Illinois State team.
This is the first Missouri Valley Conference regular season title since 1998, when Muller led the Redbirds to an automatic bid to the NCCA tournament. 1998 also marks the year Muller repeated as MVC Defensive Player of the Year and was named the MVP of the Valley Tournament.
Longtime Redbird supporter Dave Colee also remembers watching Muller in that tournament: “As a fan and public address announcer for the men’s and women’s basketball programs, I’ve seen a parade of ISU players and coaches come through and it has been incredible to see [Muller] come back as a coach and succeed.”
Needless to say, this team has accomplished more than most expected they would. But they’re not done.
This weekend brings a new host of challenges, all on the big stage at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. The Redbirds are certainly hoping that their flashy, up-tempo offense brings alumni and fans to fill the arena, but they’re counting on their defense to win that championship game Sunday and punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
“We are so proud of this group of student-athletes and [Muller] is clearly proud of them too,” Colee says. “The love that this team has for each other radiated from that bench to everyone in Redbird Arena. And that’s what makes a championship team.”
Get ready to #BackTheBirds in St. Louis and get your Illinois State Redbirds gear online today. The Redbirds will play their first game of the Valley tournament Friday, March 3 at noon and tickets are available online at Ticketmaster.com.