Team Profile: Illinois State vs. Niagara Preview
Friday, 7 p.m. EST, ESPN2
Illinois State was literally unbeatable through 14 games (14-0 start) and head coach Tim Jankovich was being called a miracle-worker by ESPN. The Redbirds were starting to pump their chests and chirp about BCS schools refusing to agree to home-and-home contracts, which would negatively affect their early season schedule.
A dozen games later, including five losses (with a season sweep at the hands of a 7-19 Indiana State team), the Redbirds are staring at a return trip to the NIT.
In fact, neither Illinois State nor Niagara can expect this game to affect their chances of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t think they view this game as critical to their season because it does come with ISU technically still in the Missouri Valley Conference race where all their energy is being directed,” Bloomington Pantagraph beat writer Jim Benson said. “ISU knows it must win the Valley Tournament to gain an NCAA tourney spot, so this is not a make-or-break game.”
While Niagara is guaranteed to produce the school’s third consecutive winning season, the Purple Eagles unfortunately don’t boast the kind of resume the committee looks for in its high standards for mid-major at-large possibilities.
This is one of those Bracketbuster contests that may come down motivation over who wants to be playing a non-conference game in the middle of February.
Illinois State has to make a 1,266-mile round trip before playing against the two teams ahead of them in the Missouri Valley Conference standings (vs. Northern Iowa, at Creighton).
“I think Coach Jankovich and the Redbirds like the fact they will be playing on ESPN2. Any national coverage usually gets them pretty jacked,” Benson said.
Niagara hosts a rematch with the Mid Atlantic Association Conference’s power team (Siena) seven days after their game with the Redbirds.
“Friday night’s home game against Illinois State won’t have any bearing on the NCAA Tournament field,” Niagara Gazette’s Jonah Bronstein wrote on Feb. 15. “Along with the return of all-time great Calvin Murphy, a win on national TV will provide valuable exposure, and increase the Purple Eagles chances of playing in the NIT.”
Both of these teams play hard-nosed man-to-man defense and are near the top of their respective conferences in defensive points per game and field goal percentage defense.
Key Matchup: Illinois State guard Osiris Eldridge vs. Niagara guard Tyrone Lewis
It’s not a coincidence that both of these teams lose when their best players don’t shoot the basketball well.
Eldridge is a 6-foot-3 shooting guard from Phillips Academy in Chicago that had some believing he had NBA-type skills when he won the Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year award two years ago. He also has shot a combined 20-for-60 in the Redbirds’ five losses.
Niagara’s combo guard Tyrone Lewis has scored double-digits in every game except for two, but one of those happened to be during a trip to MAAC leader Siena (8 points on 3 of 15 shooting). Lewis was 4-for-23 in a 99-84 loss to UT-Chattanooga and his numbers have gone down in each of his three seasons with the Purple Eagles.
It’s not likely these two players will guard each other because Eldridge would be able to post Lewis up at the block all game, but it’s critical these two players get into an early rhythm so other teammates can get involved.
Prediction: Illinois State 70, Niagara 65
The Redbirds’ four main guards average 50.6 points per game and Niagara is last in the MAAC in defending the three-point shot.
“ISU relies heavily on its perimeter game,” Benson added. “When the shots are falling, the Redbirds can be a tough team to beat.”