A 12-4 home record and 2-9 away record, two half court buzzer-beating losses, a five-game losing streak, and three wins over first-place teams, yet none of it has done this season justice for Illinois State men’s basketball.
The deciding factor on whether the Redbirds will have the luxury of playing their first Missouri Valley Conference tournament game on Friday or having to participate in a dreadful Thursday play-in game all comes down to 1 p.m. Saturday in Carbondale.
Southern Illinois and ISU hold identical records at 16-14, 9-8 MVC, as the winner of Saturday will become the sixth seed or higher at Arch Madness, while the loser is stuck at the seven seed.
With intensified importance, the Redbirds are treating this game just as they did with the previous two.
“We’ve talked about having must-wins, that’s two in a row and there’s another one, that’s our mindset. It’ll be a really, really tough game,” ISU head coach Dan Muller said following Wednesday’s win. “We’ll have to play just as hard, but we’ll have to play better in order to get that win Saturday.”
The Redbirds narrowly defeated the Salukis, 59-58, on Jan. 15 at Redbird Arena thanks to a season-high 18 Saluki turnovers, with the 18th coming on SIU’s final possession as time expired.
The Salukis will celebrate the collegiate careers of their seniors Kavion Pippen, Armon Fletcher, Thik Bol, Sean Lloyd Jr., and Rudy Stradnieks for senior day.
Fletcher leads the team with 16.2 points per game while Pippen scores 12.4 ppg, and Cook and Lloyd each average 10 ppg.
The two sides are very evenly matched and have experienced a similar rollercoaster ride of a season.
Each team also enters Saturday off back-to-back wins as the Salukis defeated Loyola at home then Evansville on the road to keep pace with the Redbirds.
After Wednesday’s win, ISU seniors Phil Fayne, William Tinsley, and Yarbrough all had the same message about this season’s final stretch: playoff mentality.
“This is the playoffs for us, every game is the playoffs,” Yarbrough said. “He [Muller] told us that there’s a chance we either play Thursday or Friday if we win this game [Wednesday], so we just want to come out with the right mindset like we did today, make sure we get in the right places that we score the most at and make sure we play defense at a high level.”