The month of March plus college hoops equals one thing: madness. For the players and coaches, including Illinois State University head coach Dan Muller and his men’s basketball team, this time of year brings a clean slate following what has at times been a challenging regular season.
With a loss against Southern Illinois University in the season finale, the Redbirds enter the postseason with a record of 16-15 overall, 9-9 in the conference. And, so begins the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament—dubbed Arch Madness—running March 7–10 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
The Redbirds, a No. 7 seed, open against the No. 10-seeded Evansville Aces Thursday at 8:30 p.m. In what’s turned out to be an unusual year with teams tightly bunched, it’s hard to pick a tournament favorite.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this league or in the country who could tell you who even the top three favorites are much less the top one or two,” Muller said. “It’s the first year I’ve been involved where there’s not one or two obvious favorites.”
Dick Luedke, who has seen a bit of everything in three decades at the microphone calling Redbird basketball, shared Muller’s assessment of the tournament.
“The league is as balanced as it has ever been,” Luedke said. “It’s wide open. The Redbirds definitely have the ability to do it. It will be interesting to see.”
Two victories separate the top slot (shared by Drake and Loyola) from Southern Illinois and Missouri State in second.
Illinois State sits just one win behind that grouping in a tie for fifth with Bradley and Northern Iowa. Any of the conference’s 10 teams appear to have a shot at taking home the trophy on Sunday and securing the conference’s automatic bid into NCAA tournament, aka March Madness. The Redbirds last qualified for the tournament in 1998 when Muller was a star player on the team.
Muller, MVC coach of the year in 2017, knows that tournament time brings a different kind of pressure, but he said it’s the same for everybody. He appreciates that it’s a chance to hit the refresh button.
“The tournament is always a fresh start even if you have a great season, a tough season, or an OK season,” he said.
When the calendar turns to March, there aren’t a lot of secrets about MVC opponents. The Redbirds’ scouting strategy is to take what is already known from the season so far and add to it with recent trends. Muller’s three assistant coaches take three teams apiece from the conference and become experts on each of them.
“Those two give the most consistent energy, mindsets, attitudes, and they have the most experience of anybody on the team,” Muller said. “We’re going to need those guys and also our other veterans to show great leadership.”
Evans can hit from long range, ranking sixth in school history with 197 career three-pointers, and Fayne is a scorer who also leads the conference in offensive rebounds. Another senior, Milik Yarbrough, leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists.
Muller, who is a big proponent of what he calls “everyday practice focus,” likes what he has seen in his team’s recent preparation.
“I’ve seen better practices, and I’ve seen good energy and good attitudes,” he said. “My teams that have had that have consistently played well down the stretch.”
The Redbirds lost in the championship game a year ago, but Muller said the focus is on having his guys ready to compete.
“Our goal is to play our best basketball down in St. Louis,” he said. “It will be a unique weekend.”
The TV broadcast will be on the MVC TV network, which includes NBC Sports Chicago, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports Indiana, and FOX Sports Kansas City.
All game audio broadcasts will be available on WJBC 1230 AM, Nash Icon 93.7 FM, GoRedbirds.com, and the Tune In app.
John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.