NORMAL — Wichita State showed last year it is possible. A Missouri Valley Conference basketball team can have a Madison Square Garden party and win the National Invitation Tournament title.
Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich made sure he brought that up to his players before Monday’s practice.
The Redbirds (20-13) seem to have bought into what their coach is selling. The first step comes tonight when ISU plays Mississippi (20-13) in an NIT first-round game at Oxford, Miss. The 8:30 p.m. game will be televised on ESPNU.
“I feel we can definitely go out there and win games and win a championship in the NIT. The last tournament we were in it to win it,” said ISU junior guard Tyler Brown, referring to the MVC Tournament. “We’re not in here to win a game or two. We’re in it to win the whole thing, and that’s how we’re going to prepare.”
Jackie Carmichael sees the Redbirds’ mindset as being the same as it was heading into St. Louis for the Valley tourney.
“We have to keep practicing hard and do the things that have been working for us from the beginning,” said Carmichael, who averaged 15 points, 11.3 rebounds and three blocks in the Valley tourney. “Our practices leading up to the tournament were great and everyone was locked in. We have to come with the same mentality before we play Ole Miss.”
ISU made a stirring run in the Valley tourney. The Redbirds beat Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals before stunning then No. 15-ranked Wichita State, 65-64, in the semifinals.
With an NCAA Tournament berth on the line, ISU held a six-point lead with 10 minutes left against No. 25 Creighton. The Bluejays rallied and pulled out an 83-79 overtime victory.
Wichita State used the motivation of not getting to the NCAA tourney last year to roll to the NIT title. However, there is a little difference between the Shockers of 2011 and ISU this season.
The Redbirds are a No. 7 seed in the NIT and likely would need to win three road games to advance to the semifinals in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on March 27. The championship game is March 29.
Wichita State was a No. 4 seed last year. The Shockers had two of their first three games at home before heading to New York.
“I think (the Shockers’) success gives anyone in our league confidence that it is possible just as the Butler, VCU runs (to the NCAA Final Four) changed everyone’s mindset,” said Jankovich. “Wichita in our league winning the tournament definitely puts you in that mindset. It’s an added incentive.”
Carmichael said ISU “still thinks we have a lot to prove” even after its MVC tourney run.
Jankovich likes hearing that.
“That’s the edge you need to have anyway. You play your best when you’re a little bit angry, but not an over amount,” he said. “I don’t think playing happy is the best way to compete at this level. Hungry is good. Hungry is the best. I know we played that way in the (MVC) tournament, without a doubt.
“I hope that becomes the personality of this team as we go forward, especially Wednesday night.”
The NIT could really be looked at as the unofficial start to the 2012-13 season for ISU. The Redbirds have no seniors on their roster.
Like Wichita State a year ago, a long NIT run by the Redbirds could serve as momentum toward getting their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. The Shockers won this year’s Valley regular-season title and were easily able to get an at-large NCAA tourney berth despite not being the Valley’s automatic qualifier out of the league tourney, earning a No. 5 seed.
Mississippi probably will be the most athletic team the Redbirds have seen this season. Jankovich said the Rebels “look like an NBA team” with their height at every starting position, including a pair of 6-foot-4 guards and a 6-9 small forward.
The Redbirds sound eager for the challenge.
“We just want to go out there and show people we can compete with anybody,” said Brown.
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