VCU was picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference with 19 (out of 24) first place votes.
WHERE TO WATCH: ISU AT VCU
Comcast SportsNet Chicago PLUS: Comcast: 101, DirecTV: 666, Dish: 442, AT&T U-Verse: 1742
MASN: DirecTV: 640, Dish: 432
REDBIRDS AND RAMS
Even though this is just the fifth meeting between Illinois State and VCU, second-year ISU head coach Dan Muller has already faced the Rams twice, as a player. In fact, the last time the Redbirds played VCU, Muller was a sophomore who led all scorers with 19 points and seven rebounds to help ISU in a narrow, 74-72, loss at VCU, Dec. 23, 1995. As a freshman, Muller netted 15 points with nine rebounds to lift Illinois State to its lone win against the Rams, 77-68, Dec. 18, 1994, at Redbird Arena.
TO BE THE BEST, YOU HAVE TO BEAT THE BEST
Illinois State is no stranger to playing Top-25 teams. In each of the last two years, the Redbirds have faced a Top-25 team eight times, with ISU winning twice. ISU earned a 65-64 win over No. 15 Wichita State at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament (Mar. 3, 2012), followed by a 75-72 victory at No. 16 Creighton (Feb. 9, 2013). The win at Creighton represented ISU's first true road victory over a Top-25 foe since winning at No. 17 Tulsa, 73-72, in 1985. ISU is 9-47 all-time against Top-25 teams, and the only other time ISU started the season against a Top-25 team, the Redbirds lost at home to No. 2 Purdue, 68-61, in 1987.
Throughout ISU's program history, the Redbirds have played well in their season openers. Since the 1981-82 season, Illinois State's first campaign in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Redbirds have won 20 of their 32 season openers. In the 116-year history of the program, Illinois State has compiled a 77-38 all-time record in season-opening games. In the NCAA Division I-era (1970-present), the Redbirds are 27-16 in season-openers, and ISU has won eight of its last 10 season openers, winning last year against UC Santa Barbara to open the year at Redbird Arena.
LATE SURGE LEADS TO EXHIBITION WIN
The first 32 minutes of Illinois State's exhibition game against Quincy last Sunday (Nov. 3) afternoon featured 10 ties and eight lead changes, but the Redbirds used a 27-8 run over the final seven-plus minutes of the game to pull away with a 84-65 win over the Hawks on Doug Collins Court at Redbird Arena. Sophomore newcomer Zach Lofton led all scorers with 19 points for ISU, including a 3-for-5 effort from three-point range, and junior transfer Bobby Hunter chipped in 17 points.
NEW NAMES AND NUMBERS
Out of the 14 names on Illinois State's 2013-14 men's basketball roster, only four were also on the roster in 2012-13. Why so many new faces? Following the conclusion of last season, four graduated, four transferred and one was dismissed from the program. Out of the returning four, only two (Kaza Keane and Nick Zeisloft) have extensive NCAA Division I playing experience. With 10 newcomers - eight of whom are eligible to play this year - Redbird fans will be busy learning new names and numbers this season.
COUNTING ON SOPHOMORE EXPERIENCE
Despite losing every starter from last year's team, Illinois State returns two key contributors in sophomore Kaza Keane and redshirt sophomore Nick Zeisloft. Keane led the Redbirds in assists per game (3.2) and Zeisloft amassed ISU's top three-point shooting percentage (41.8 percent) as freshmen in 2012-13. Sophomore walk-on guard Matt Stacho is also beginning his second season.
J.J., IT'S TIME TO PLAY
Although he joined the Illinois State men's basketball team prior to the 2011-12 season, junior forward John Jones (nicknamed J.J. by his coaches and teammates) has never played in a game, until now. Jones was charged two seasons of eligibility by the NCAA for an amateurism issue prior to his enrollment at Illinois State. During his first year with the team, in 2011-12, Jones practiced with the team, but was not allowed to travel or play in games. During his second year, in 2012-13, Jones practiced and traveled with the team, but did not play. He is now eligible to compete for the Redbirds in 2013-14.
BIGGEST UNKNOWN IN THE VALLEY
With just three returning letter winners, the Redbirds are the only team in the Missouri Valley Conference without a returning starter. Illinois State also features 11 newcomers without NCAA Division I experience, which is more than any other team in the league. The ISU roster consists of five freshmen and five junior college transfers, plus John Jones, who is eligible to play his first season of collegiate basketball after two years with the Redbirds. Needless to say, it is difficult for anyone to know what the Redbirds are capable of accomplishing on the court this season.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR INCOMING CLASS
Illinois State's large recruiting class has garnered national recognition leading up to the season, with Basketball Times ranking the Redbirds' 2013 class No. 29 in its June edition. Additionally, four Redbirds were selected by the Lindy's 2013-14 preview as Top-100 junior college transfers.
ISU PICKED SEVENTH IN PRESEASON POLL
The Illinois State men's basketball team received 139 points and was projected to finish seventh in the 2013-14 Missouri Valley Conference standings according to the league's preseason poll, as compiled from votes by MVC head coaches, beat writers, radio play-by-play personalities and institutional communication directors (see complete poll on page 13). Pollsters have accurately predicted the league's regular-season champ only 13 times out of 28 since 1985-86.
WHEN THE REDBIRDS ARE SELECTED SEVENTH
This is the fourth time that Illinois State has been picked to finish seventh in the Valley preseason poll, with the other three seventh-place selections occurring in 1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2003-04. After being tabbed seventh prior to the 2000-01 season, the Redbirds went on to amass a 21-9 overall record and a 12-6 MVC mark en route to a second-place league finish and a bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Illinois State head coach Dan Muller has made it public about his desire to continue improving the Redbirds' strength of schedule, and that is evident by ISU's 2013-14 season-opening opponent, Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in 2013, are ranked No. 14/No. 15 in the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll, respectively. VCU will play ISU on Doug Collins Court at Redbird Arena in 2014-15 for the home-and-home series return. The Redbirds are also beginning a home-and-home series with DePaul and Northwestern this season, while ISU is in the second year of home-and-home contracts with Drexel and Dayton.