Every year, in almost every conference, there is at least one team that drastically exceeds or fails to meet expectations. For a team doing surprisingly well, everyone in the program’s locker room already has to believe in its talent. To the outside world, however, teams who do surprisingly well are a spectacle because of a perceived lack of talent.
No such team embodies this sentiment more this season than the Illinois State Redbirds.
ISU was slated to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference after having its team decimated by graduation. Former standout big man Jackie Carmichael and former volume-scorer Tyler Brown both finished as all-conference selections last season. Carmichael was a first team player and Brown ended his career on the second team.
The only other team to finish with two players on the first and second all-conference teams was Wichita State. Senior Cleanthony Early, 2013 first team All-Missouri Valley Conference honoree, has improved and helped his team since last year, but ISU hasn’t been able to see any growth from its honored players because both graduated. Carmichael has even had a brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks.
What is most surprising about this team is that its projected area of weakness — the interior — has been favorable for the Redbirds. Freshman center Reggie Lynch is the team’s fourth leading scorer (7.7 PPG) and is the team’s and conference’s leading shot blocker. It is because of Lynch’s ability in the post that the Redbird shooters have been freed up to connect on open shots.
ISU’s most impressive stat is its ability to hit free throws. As a team, Illinois State doesn’t shoot an inordinate amount of freebies, but the team’s scorers and ball handlers make free throws at an incredible amount. Although Nick Zeisloft leads the team at 90 percent from the charity stripe, ISU has five other players who shoot better than 70 percent.
If teams in the MVC continue to overlook the Redbirds, they will continue to rack up wins. Even if Illinois State doesn’t win the conference tournament this year, it will be a force in the Valley for years to come.