NORMAL, Ill. (WAND) -- At the outset of the 2018-19 season, Illinois State head coach Dan Muller said that his roster was the most talented in his tenure. That included the Missouri Valley Conference regular season champion 2016-17 squad from two years ago that went 17-1.
Then came the team's treacherous nonconference slate.
The Rebirds went 6-6 in a schedule that is ranked 133rd in the country in the KenPom rankings and 174th in the BPI put out by ESPN. The bottom line: the team fell short of preseason expectations.
But despite that, the Redbirds (8-8 against Division-I opponents) showed flashes of brilliance on Saturday in a 67-64 loss at Loyola.
+ For one, LeRoy, Ill. native Matt Chastain showed off the athleticism that he displayed frequently in a Panther uniform, cleaning up a second half miss with an emphatic tip dunk. It wasn't just a dazzler: it came at a critical time, tying up the game at 61 with about three minutes left.
+ Milik Yarbrough continues to put up gaudy stat lines despite his off-the-court disciplinary issues that have prevented him from speaking to the media for most of this season. He was recently named to the Lou Henson Award watch list (top player in a midmajor conference) and has averaged 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists this season. On Saturday at Loyola he put up 19 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists.
+ Phil Fayne has put up strong numbers, with 15.3 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game and a team-high 24 blocks.
+ Illinois State's metrics are remarkably consistent, if under preseason expectations. The Redbirds' offense ranks 185th in the country in offensive efficiency and 184th in the country in defensive efficiency (both according to KenPom.com). This correlates to a win percentage that is 178th in the country.
+ The Redbirds rank in the Top 100 in the nation in just a handful of categories, including Three-Point FG Defense (85th), Assists Per Game (97), Assist:Turnover Ratio (94), Total Assists (82) and Three-Point FG Attempts (93).
+ Missouri Valley play: Illinois State is well within the league title chase at 2-2. Only Valparaiso is unbeaten early on (4-0), while each one of the conference's 10 teams are between 7-10 and 12-5 overall thus far in 2018-19.
+ Up next: this week Illinois State welcomes Southern Illinois to Normal. The Salukis earned national headlines when they gave Kentucky a scare in Lexington earlier this season. They're also led by former MacArthur High guard Marcus Bartley, who starts at the point for coach Barry Hinson's squad. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Then on Saturday the Redbirds travel to Evansville to face the Purple Aces in a 1 p.m. meeting.