Drake at Illinois State (Missouri Valley)Redbird Arena - Normal, IL8:05 PM EST
Yes, everybody knows about the 19-game winning streak. But here begins the true grind for Drake, three games which will test their mettle like no stretch has. OK, fine, whatever, so we've been saying things like that all season... but in the next two weeks, the 20-1 (11-0 MVC) Bulldogs will play road games against top-100 RPI teams that also happen to be above .500 in the Valley, in places that have reputations as arenas where losing streaks go to die. Next Wednesday, it's Southern Illinois and their legendary SIU Arena crowd, and then it's on to Northern Iowa, which we still say is the most dangerous matchup in the league for this team.
But tonight, it's a trip to Redbird Arena to play second-place Illinois State, a team that just two weeks ago was a fellow undefeated. A 79-73
Drake win in Des Moines changed that, and it was the beginning of something of a confidence crisis for the Redbirds. Stripped of their own nine-game win streak, Illinois State went on to lose two of its next four, and the pair it won -- at home versus Indiana State and on the road at Missouri State -- were hardly dominant, two victories won by a combined four points. So what happened? Wasn't the rebounding -- they've won the boards battle in each game. The floor shooting is still the Valley's best. They're beginning to droop defensively, and have given up at least a point per opponent possession every time out since Drake. That didn't happen in their previous 12 games.
Finding new angles on Drake is getting more and more difficult the longer the streak continues, but it's a good time to talk about a player that slips through the publicity cracks from time to time. I'm talking about Leonard Houston
, the 6-3 four-year senior guard who was a bit player for three years until really coming into his own in this dream season. He had his best shooting night of the year in the first Illinois State game (7-for-11 for 18 points), and he's doubled his scoring average and is the team's second-leading point-getter (and the Valley's No. 3) at 14.7 ppg. Despite all that, he's only led the team in scoring on a per-game basis once
. That's how balanced this team is! And ladies, he's into long walks on the beach and eating s'mores.
It's hard not to love these guys, but Illinois State will do its best to resist their charms.DRAKE 73, ILLST 70