Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich feels his biggest enemy is complacency after his team's unexpected early success this season.
"Turn off all their computers, no newspapers, nothing," he said, laughing.
Illinois State, which has not finished higher than sixth in the Missouri Valley Conference in the last five seasons, has established itself as a contender, improving to 4-0 in the conference after Tuesday's 51-46 win over Northern Iowa. The Redbirds received a vote in last week's AP poll.
"We have to keep our eye on the ball and continue to improve," said Jankovich, who spent the previous five seasons under Bill Self at Illinois and Kansas. "We can't look at standings or count up wins."
Jankovich has reason to worry. The Redbirds built a 47-29 lead with just eight minutes remaining, but had to sweat out the final two minutes after blowing nearly the entire lead. Northern Iowa closed to 47-46 after a 17-0 run before ISU made some big defensive plays to secure a 51-46 win. It was the seventh straight victory for the Redbirds, their longest winning streak since the 2000-01 season.
"Over the last 4-5 years, because of lack of success, attendance was down and it was a sad thing to see," Jankovich said. "We had almost 10,000 the other night, so the support has really bounced back. There is a strong buzz around the community and campus and it has been tremendous to see."
Illinois State has new company atop the league, as upstarts Drake and Indiana State are also off to fast starts in what has emerged recently as the toughest mid-major conference. Five different Valley teams have made the NCAA tournament the last two years and every team but Drake has made it at least once since 1998.
"I didn't come here thinking we were going to take the Missouri Valley by storm or anything because of the quality of the programs here," Jankovich said. "And I'm not saying we are now. It is way too early to think in those terms, but I will say things have come together quicker than I thought they would."
Illinois State has four starters back from last year's 15-16 team, and the Redbirds have bought into Jankovich's emphasis on defense. Illinois State is holding teams to 37.2 percent shooting, a marked improvement from the 46 percent it allowed a year ago. In a 56-47 breakthrough win over Southern Illinois, the Redbirds held the Salukis without a field goal for the first 16 minutes and broke an 11-game losing streak against a program that has been to six straight NCAA tournaments.
Offensively, Jankovich said he allows his team freedom in an unstructured attack, "if they work hard at the defensive end," he said. Five different players have led the team in scoring and sophomore Osiris Eldridge is the Redbirds' top scorer with 15.1 points per game. Center Levi Dyer has been a nightmare for opposing defenses coming off the bench, hitting 50 percent of his three-pointers and guard Boo Richardson leads the Missouri Valley with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.14-to-1.
"The biggest surprise to me is the spirit and hunger of this team," Jankovich said. "This is a group, from the very first minute, has been unbelievably receptive."
Another former assistant coach from a top program is having success in his first year at a mid-major school. Former Pitt assistant Mike Rice has Robert Morris making strides in the Northeast Conference, highlighted by this week's 57-51 win at Boston College. The Colonials are 11-5 (2-1 in the conference) and have won four straight. Their nine non-league wins are the most in school history.
Rice has been trying to emphasize defense with his new team since the preseason, and it paid off against Boston College as the Eagles were held to their lowest output in three years. It was the fourth time the Colonials had held an opponent under 60 points.
"It's all about stops and teamwork over talent," Rice said after the BC victory. "If we didn't play together every possession defensively, with five guys scratching and clawing and trying to secure a rebound, we wouldn't have won."
There's poor shooting, and then there's the effort put forth by two mid-major teams recently. Struggling Penn recently set a new standard of shot clock futility, scoring just six points in the first half against Florida Gulf Coast, a team in its first year of Division I competition. Penn hit 1 of 17 field goal attempts (5.9 percent) in the first half. Both the total points and shooting percentage were NCAA record-lows for a half since the shot clock was instituted.
Those records lasted 11 days. Savannah State, in a visit to Kansas State, missed 22 of 23 second-half field goal attempts and scored four points in a 85-25 loss. Savannah State was outscored 48-4 in the second half.
Said Savannah State coach Horace Broadnaux after the game: "Look back over the past three years, we've been beat worse than this. We got beat by Oregon 89-23. This is the situation where when we are good, we're good and when we're bad, we're bad. The lesson that I want them to learn is a life lesson. Can you move on?"
New week, same two teams. New Jersey Institute of Technology, which won five games last year, fell to 0-17 following a 79-68 loss at Penn. The Highlanders host Columbia (6-8) and Cornell (6-5) in their next two games.
Grambling is 0-9 after losing 94-61 to Alabama A&M. Next up for Grambling are road games at Southern (3-10) and Alcorn State (2-13).