Last season Illinois State made a memorable debut in the Missouri Valley Conference by bringing defense to what had been known as a run-'n'-gun league, limiting Valley opponents to only 58 points per game and 44.1% shooting. "To be effective," says Redbird Coach Bob Donewald, "we had to control the tempo, play solid defense and stay within the team concept."
If that sounds familiar, it should. Before joining Illinois State, Donewald spent five years as an assistant to Bobby Knight at Indiana. In the four years Donewald has been at Normal, the Redbirds have built a record of 74-41. Over the past five years the school's 67.8 winning percentage is the 30th best in the nation.
With their belly up, aggressive defense, the Redbirds were like a Big Ten team suddenly let loose on the Valley last season, catching most opponents by surprise. While that's unlikely to happen again this season, that element now may not be necessary. On paper, Illinois State has the personnel to be an unsurprising winner. In a league full of transfers from junior colleges and four-year schools—"We don't take that route," sniffs Donewald—the Redbirds have all five starters and nine of their top 10 players returning from a 17-12 squad that finished the season by upending eventual NIT champion Bradley in the conference tournament.
But there are some questions. For example, how do you win with no starter taller than 6'8"? With a team lacking outstanding quickness and outside shooting? For Donewald, the answer is found in hard work. "We're fiercely competitive but limited," Donewald says. "If we play outside of those limitations we aren't nearly as effective."
The players realize that. "If we're listening to what the coaches say we can beat any team on our schedule, but if our minds aren't in it, anybody on the schedule can beat us," says Rick Lamb, a 6'7", 230-pound center who has led Illinois State in scoring and rebounding the last two seasons. "People were upset when Coach Donewald first came here because he didn't play a light-it-up style like Wichita State's Gene Smithson. That's exciting to watch but it could be costly, especially for us."
Lamb will be joined in Dullsville by Guard Dwayne Tyus, and Forward Hank Cornley. If the names don't sound familiar now, Lamb says to just wait a little bit. "We're as good as anyone in the league, maybe nationally. Come March we'll be up there."