It is not out of the ordinary for an Illinois State University basketball team to start the season with numerous players battling injuries. Last season, the Redbirds began the season with eight or nine players routinely, including in their exhibition game against Lewis to begin the season.
This season was no different, as the Redbirds played without senior point guard Ricky Torres (ankle), redshirt junior forward Matt Chastain (hand) and redshirt sophomore forward Taylor Bruninga in a 74-68 exhibition win against Truman State at Redbird Arena.
Not only this, but about midway through the first half redshirt junior forward Keith Fisher III left the game with an injury and did not return to the contest. Fisher had 0 points on 0 for 6 shooting and two rebounds in nine minutes of play.
"Obviously not real pretty for the most part," ISU head coach Dan Muller said. "Keith (Fisher) went down, and not that we were playing well before that, but I think that affected us. He had trouble breathing; it happened last year in practice. We'll do some tests, but I think he'll be OK."
The ’Birds shot 43.4% (28-64) from the field, but just 22.7% (5-22) from three-point range in the win, while also committing 17 turnovers. Truman State, a NCAA Division II team, built a 22-8 lead early in the first half before eventually taking a 39-26 advantage into the halftime locker room.
Despite the injuries, this game was a chance for many Redbirds to see the court for the first time in a while (or ever) in a collegiate basketball game. ISU returned just three players from last season's 17-16 team (Zach Copeland, Rey Idowu, Matt Chastain).
"I knew we'd be nervous, I just didn't think it'd be that bad," Muller said. "We had a whole bunch of nerves out there. You could just see it in their faces, like all of them. As I told the team, I couldn't even recognize this team. That didn't look anything like anything we did in practice or in Italy."
As Muller echoed throughout the offseason, his hopes were to get multiple guys rotation minutes as all but two Redbird players in uniform saw at least 10 minutes of action.
"Once Keith went down that kind of threw a loop in everything we were going to do with our rotations," Muller said. "After that it was just about getting guys in and out when they were tired. Some guys didn't play as much as they will. We had a plan for our rotation, but after Keith went down it was kind of sub as we went."
Copeland University led the charge in both minutes (29) and points (18) for the ’Birds. Copeland, a preseason All-Missouri Valley Conference Third Team selection, is the leading returning scorer for the Redbirds (9.3 peg).
"I had to tell these guys to relax and tell myself to relax," Copeland said. "I think we had a lot of excitement, so we didn't settle down and just play basketball. I feel like we learned without getting burned."
Transfers Jaycee Hillsman (12 points, 11 rebounds, 29 minutes) and Dedric Boyd (10 points, 20 minutes) settled in nicely to their roles as prominent offensive forces for ISU.
"We came in at halftime and understood what we did wrong in the first half," Hillsman said. "We understood how we needed to fix it, and I feel like we came out in the second half with the right mentality."
Freshmen Abdou Ndiaye (nine points, 16 minutes), Antonio Reeves (eight points, 22 minutes), D.J. Horne (three points, 26 minutes) and Harouna Sissoko (10 minutes) also made their debuts for the ’Birds.
"It was my first game, I was a little nervous," Reeves said. "I had to get used to the atmosphere and the crowd, so I just had to take my time."
ISU slowly made its way back into the game in the second half, taking a 62-60 lead with 3:59remaining. The was the first lead for the Redbirds since a 5-4 advantage early in the first half as they outscored the Bulldogs 48-29 in the second half.
Back-to-back buckets by Idowu and Hillsman gave the ’Birds a 69-66 lead with 58.1 left. Copeland added a midrange jumper and two free throws shortly after to seal the deal for the ’Birds.