NORMAL, Ill. - I was set to lose my Valley virginity Sunday night as I traveled south from Chicago to central Illinois. As you'd expect, I was very excited, but also very nervous: I had waited so long for this moment, what if it didn't live up to my expectations? What if everything I'd heard about it wasn't really true. What a letdown that would be after all that anticipation.
You always wonder, but I'm pretty sure I was ready. Last season, I remarked how awesome the Missouri Valley Conference was on more than a few occasions. Finally, someone wrote back, "What's stopping you from coming out here?"
Twelve months later, here I am.
So how was it? Well, as you might expect, it was a bit awkward, downright ugly at times, and - despite the preparation - I really didn't know what was going on for most of it. Nothing that is hyped as much as this can ever truly live up to your expectations.
But it was certainly memorable, I'll give it that.
Like the great cities of the east, New York and Boston, it takes a while to drive out of the clutches of Chicago. The suburbs seem to go on forever, but finally the Interstates go from eight lanes to six, and finally to four. Two hours south (and a little west) of the Windy City lies the Normal-Bloomington metro area, home of Illinois State.
Its campus is the biggest thing in the area, and Redbird Arena might be the structure that stands out most, with a lit Teflon roof standing on the edge of the campus like a shrine. It was cold outside, but that didn't stop the fans from lining up at every entrance waiting for the gates to open an hour before tip-off.
(I walked around to make sure it was indeed every entrance and did see a small Asian woman carrying two suitcases let in below. Red Panda is no stranger to the Valley, although she had a couple of drops at halftime. The February late-season grind is tough on everybody. She still got a standing ovation from the student section.)
By the time the game was ready to start, 10,000 fans - almost all of them decked out in red (even I wore a red shirt) - were standing and cheering in unison. You could argue whether this was truly Mid-majority basketball or not. But in a small town in the heartland of America, there was no denying that this was college basketball.
For a team that could end up very close to the NCAA Tournament bubble, Wichita St. put together a dreadful offensive performance. For a while, Illinois St. wasn't much better, it was some ugly, stilted basketball on both sides, but a spurt delighted the crowd and gave the Redbirds a 19-5 lead with seven minutes left in the half. The Shockers still trailed 27-20 at the break, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
It was early in the second half when Jon Ekey stole the ball, looked ahead to Bryant Allen, who tossed a perfect alley-oop lob to Tyler Brown. Before Brown's dunk had even hit the ground, the entire crowd was in a frenzy and Wichita St. coach Gregg Marshall (an old friend of TMM)
had called time, his team trailing 38-27 with 13:30 left.
It would stay in that range for most of the remainder of the game, but even though the Redbird lead was double digits at the final media time out, and the Shockers hadn't led since it was 5-4, my superior intrinsic basketball sense detected trouble.
With 50 seconds to go and Illinois St. leading by five, trouble indeed made its appearance on the scene. And the havoc it played would soon make national news.
Like so many of the players on this site, Jackie Carmichael was one of those guys who fell through the cracks, although I guess the Valley isn't falling all the way into the sewage system. But as a resident of Manhattan, Kansas, he didn't get a look from Kansas State out of high school, instead going to Connecticut for prep school, where he ended up with Illinois St. and new coach Tim Jankovic
, who also happened to be a graduate of Manhattan High School.
Under Jankovic, Carmichael steadily improved to the point where he was not only a known commodity in the MVC, but drawing the attention of NBA scouts and Sports Illustrated. Even with Doug McDermott hanging around, it looked like the Redbirds - in Carmichael's senior season - had a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
But Jankovic was soon gone, taking an offer (a lucrative one) to become an assistant (and Head Coach in Waiting, a bizarre title) at SMU, which will join the remnants of the Big East next season. Guard Nic Moore went with him.
The Redbirds won their first five non-conference games under new coach Dan Muller, but soon went into a free-fall, losing six straight Valley games to begin conference play. But heading into Sunday, they had won seven of eight, and were closing in on another huge victory when Carmichael was involved in one of the most peculiar plays we'll see all season.
Wichita St.'s Malcolm Armstead missed a three-point attempt and Carmichael rose above everyone to grab his ninth rebound of the game. Only as he did, his foot scraped across Tekele Cotton's face and hit him squarely in the chest. From the stands, I immediately wondered, but the referees initially saw nothing wrong, and 10 seconds later, the Shockers fouled to stop the clock.
A decade ago, Carmichael's flying kung fu kick might have still made the rounds
, but officials couldn't check the video as were able to Sunday. Carmichael was assessed a flagrant foul, and both teams hit two free throws to make it 67-62.
(Interestingly, referees are not allowed to check the replay to see if there is a personal foul or not, so the action after Carmichael's kick stood, even though common sense seems to dictate that Illinois St. probably shouldn't have been shooting at all.)
The rest you might know as well, after a turnover, the comeback was complete when Cleanthony Early (who was wrongly allowed to take the free throws after the flagrant foul, which earned the officials a reprimand) hit a #superhoop
that proved to be the game-winner with 5.9 seconds left.
Carmichael got the ball near midcourt on the final possession and made it to within 10 feet of the hoop, but cruelly, his runner hit the back of the rim and bounced out, 10,000 red-clad folk in Redbird Arena suddenly stunned and walking slowly toward the exits.
Welcome to Valley basketball.
In what I think is a nice tradition, Redbird Arena opens its court for 20 minutes after the game for anyone who wants to shoot around. Mostly its children that take part, but I bullied one long enough to get two #superhoops
up. One long, one short. Man am I out of practice.
Toward the end of that 20 minutes, I saw something that made me believe that - despite the big crowds and growing budget - there is a place for the Missouri Valley Conference in the mid-major world. The players on both teams started to emerge from the locker room and talk to some of the fans in attendance.
Eventually, Carmichael came out and took a seat in the front row, trying to explain what happened to some people. "Keep your head up" and "Get 'em next time" was the sentiment as they finally started to usher people out so they could clean the place.
(I thought Carmichael, who by most accounts is a model citizen, had a good explanation to USA Today on Monday
: ""Some people on campus were calling me 'Jackie Chan Carmichael' If it wasn't such a bad memory, I might keep it. Anyone who watches me knows I'm not a dirty player. I saw (the replay). If I was someone who wasn't at the game in our fanbase, I guess I would think it was intentional. I'm looking at it from my point of view, though, and I didn't mean it. I went up for a rebound like I usually do.")
As I drove back through the streets of Normal, they weren't exactly deserted, but I wouldn't describe them as "hopping", either. With only one home game left in Carmichael's career, they have just about seen the last of one of the greats of Illinois St. basketball.
I was off to the next stop, back toward the hustle and traffic of Chicago.
But I'll never forget my first Valley basketball game.