NORMAL – The secret to how Illinois State became one of the nation’s biggest surprises is hardly a secret at all.
“We play fast. We play hard,” senior guard Paris Lee said.
The Redbirds are also quietly playing as well as anyone in the country – especially on defense.
Illinois State (17-4, 9-0 MVC) has won 10 straight, a stretch that includes a win over Valley powerhouse Wichita State, and is 9-0 in the league for the first time since 1983.
The Redbirds are rolling behind a ferocious defensive attack that ranks third nationally in opposing field-goal percentage at 36.9 and is averaging close to eight steals a game.
Illinois State, which also has posted an average scoring margin of plus-14 in league games, beat Indiana State, 71-66, on Wednesday.
“We are guarding at a high level. Defensively, we haven’t had a bad game in about 12 games. And when you do that, you’re going to have a chance every night,” said fifth-year coach Dan Muller, who has former Joliet West coach Luke Yaklich as his associate head coach.
Like many mid-major programs that seem to come out of nowhere, Muller and the Redbirds needed time to get where they are.
Muller, a former Illinois State player who helped lead the program to its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1998, returned to his alma mater in 2012 after a 12-year stint as an assistant at Vanderbilt.
Muller got the Redbirds going right away, winning 18 games in each of his first two seasons.
Illinois State made the NIT in 2014-15 after losing the Valley title game, and in 2015-16 Illinois State went 12-6 in the Valley, its best league mark in eight years.
Muller has built the program behind a hard-nosed style that players say has helped them become more disciplined.
Lee said Muller is as hard on the seniors as he is the freshmen, which has fostered an atmosphere of camaraderie and accountability.
“Coach believes in us. He lets us play,” senior forward Deontae Hawkins said.
The Redbirds were picked second in the MVC preseason poll. But injuries left them with a thin rotation in November and December, and they blew three leads on the road in the final few minutes during nonconference play.
But senior guard Tony Wills, who Muller said is one of the best perimeter defenders in the Valley, and 7-foot-1 center Daouda Ndiaye got healthy ahead of league play – and the Redbirds took off.
In league play, Illinois State has allowed only two opponents to score more than 62 points.
“We haven’t changed much. We play some zone, we play some man,” Muller said. “We’ve guarded things the same way we guarded them back in November. We’re just doing it a lot better.”
Hawkins (15.2 points, 7.0 rebounds per game), MiKyle McIntosh (13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds) and Lee (12.9 points, 5.3 assists) lead a veteran core that can put up points in bunches, winning six of its eight Valley games by at 10 points.
But the Redbirds say one of the best starts in school history is because of their commitment to team defense.
“You don’t want to be that guy that gets beat on defense because then you have to defer to your teammates like ‘Man. My bad, bro,’ ” Lee said. “We’re always there for each other, and I think that’s a big deal.”