Until Tuesday night, Illinois State was one of just four unbeaten teams in the country.
Yet hardly anyone seemed to notice that Illinois State was right there with Clemson, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest before dropping a 56-52 decision at Bradley in a Missouri Valley Conference game. However, the Redbirds still did not crack the Associated Press' top 25 this past Monday and those who did happen to recognize that they had a perfect record dismissed Tim Jankovich's club because of a soft schedule.
Illinois State has played just the 269th-strongest schedule in the nation, according to the Pomeroy Ratings, and that number drops to 320 of 344 when only non-conference games are counted. Illinois State did not beat anyone out of conference ranked higher than No. 97 Wright State in the Pomeroys, which is why the Redbirds stand at No. 47 despite a 14-1 record that figures to improve Saturday when they visit No. 279 Indiana State in an MVC game.
Jankovich gets understandably touchy when the subject of the schedule is broached. It seemed no one wanted to play Illinois State this winter after it went 25-10 last season and advanced to the second round of the NIT in its first season under Jankovich, who spent the previous five seasons as an assistant to Bill Self, four at Kansas and one at Illinois.
"Before I took this job, I had several friends who had coached in the Missouri Valley over the years and they had always complained that scheduling was the least favorite part of the job because no one from the bigger conferences likes to play teams from this conference," Jankovich said. "In fact, I had heard so many coached from this conference say it that it became like a mantra. Now that I'm sitting in this chair, I see it. We have a hard time getting games.
"Sometimes, the national media likes to criticize schools about their schedules and I think it's comical because they've never tried to schedule. It's not like when you walk into the Dairy Queen and order a Blizzard and a hamburger. For us, it's more like going to the soup kitchen. Whatever they're serving, that's what you get. It's frustrating for a lot of coaches in this conference."
Thus, Jankovich is not apologizing for Illinois State's record. In fact, he is proud of the fact his team has won 14 of its first 15 games after losing three starters from last season's team and having a rash of injuries over the summer.
"Until three days before the start of the season, we were missing three of our top seven players," Jankovich said. "I like how our guys have handled the adversity."
Sophomore guard Alex Rubin missed the first 13 games and junior guard Bobby Hill has yet to play and will likely take a redshirt after having knee surgery.
Yet, Illinois State has been successful because of its three starting guards, senior Champ Oguchi and juniors Osiris Eldridge and Lloyd Phillips. Oguchi has a 116.9 offensive rating, which ranks 234th in the nation, Eldridge has a 115.5 offensive rating while ranking 131st in percentage of minutes (84.2) and Phillips has a 112.7 offensive rating.
Junior forward Dinma Odiakosa is 17th in the country with a 16.4 offensive rebounding percentage and has a 108.6 offensive rating. Odiakosa has improved dramatically in the past two seasons and Jankovich believes he is the epitome of the type of players on the Illinois State roster.
"The one thing I have found in 20-plus years of coaching is that every single guy who gives full effort and concentration on a daily basis, regardless of whether he started as a top recruit or a walk-on, always becomes an asset," Jankovich said. "Dinma is the poster child for that. He works as hard as anyone. He pays attention to detail. He takes time away from just practice time to improve his game. He's not a finished product yet but he's a joy to coach."
That is why Illinois State, despite Odiakosa being the tallest player in the lineup at 6'8", ranks 14th in the nation by allowing opponents to grab just 27.5 of potential offensive rebounds.
"We're very small but our rebounding surprises me," Jankovich said. "Actually, a lot about this team surprises me. We've done pretty well despite missing some key guys for most of the season. It's a tribute to the kids we have."
The New Number One
Pittsburgh, which takes a 14-0 record into its home game Sunday with St. John's, moved to top of the AP rankings for the first time in school history this week. While coach Jamie Dixon downplays the No. 1 ranking with Big East play just underway, he does not feel it will be a burden to his Panthers.
"I don't know if it adds any pressure as it does bring a sense of awareness to our players," Dixon said. "We've talked about it as a team and being ranked No. 1 can mean one of two things. It can either be a distraction or serve as motivation. We've really vowed to limit our distractions this year and use anything that comes upon us as motivation. That's really our plan. I know some people don't think we're really No. 1. That's just motivation for us because it means we have to prove ourselves."
Pitt is No. 3 in the Pomeroy Rankings behind Duke and West Virginia.
Meanwhile, North Carolina's season-long run atop the AP poll ended last Sunday with its stunning home loss to Boston College in its Atlantic Coast Conference opener. Thus ends all the talk about the Tar Heels having a chance to become the first team to get through a season with a perfect record since Indiana in 1975-76.
North Carolina went 13-0 in non-conference play and no one came closer to the Tar Heels than 15 points. North Carolina is No. 108 in non-conference strength of schedule, which leads to the question of whether they were challenged enough before jumping into the ACC. Coach Roy Williams bristled at that suggestion.
"That's what everybody says but it's something for (the media) to write about," Williams said. "In every game we played, we never considered stepping out of bounds and handing the ball back over to the other team for 15 consecutive possessions to make it close. We beat Notre Dame, which was a top 10 team. We beat Michigan State, which was a pre-season top 10 team. We played a true road game at Santa Barbara and a true road game at Nevada.
"When we made out the schedule, we thought it was a good schedule and it was a good schedule. It's just a matter of us not playing well against Boston College and that they totally outplayed us. That was the difference in the game, not our non-conference schedule."
Ups and Downs on Chestnut Hill
Boston College moved into the AP rankings at No. 18 after knocking off North Carolina then promptly was upset at home by crosstown rival Harvard 82-70 three nights later. It was one of the biggest wins in Crimson history as Tommy Amaker continues to rebuild his coaching career after being fired at Michigan two years ago.
Amaker, though, downplayed his role in the victory, Harvard's first ever over a ranked team.
"We're fortunate Boston College didn't play very well," Amaker said. "They didn't play up to their capabilities but that's how funny the game is."
Boston College coach Al Skinner, though, did not think Harvard's win was a fluke but continues to be perplexed by the up-and-down nature of his Eagles.
"Harvard controlled the game, controlled the tempo, did the things that they had to do," Skinner said. "We've done this before. This is who we are. We're capable of being this team and also capable of being another team like the one that beat North Carolina."
Amaker wasn't the only coach who has taken a step down the ladder to pull an upset on the road against an ACC team Wednesday. Todd Bozeman's Morgan State team stunned Maryland 64-63. The Bears were not intimidated about playing on the road after also beating the Big East's DePaul earlier in the season.
"I've never seen a person from the crowd make a bucket or block a shot," said Bozeman, formerly the coach at California. "If you travel around and play on the playgrounds growing up, like all our guys do, you're not going to be playing in front of your own people. You learn how to deal with that. So I don't think that played a part at all."
The ATR Top 25
The Around The Rim Top 25 (not including Thursday's games) -- a new feature for the first full week of the new year.
- North Carolina
- Wake Forest
- Arizona State
- Michigan State
- West Virginia
- Notre Dame
- Brigham Young
Games to Watch
Five games to watch in the next week, according to the Pomeroy Ratings with all times Eastern
No. 2 West Virginia (11-3) at No. 26 Marquette (14-2), Saturday Jan. 10, Noon, Big East Network
No. 20 Oklahoma (14-1) at No. 13 Kansas State (11-3), Saturday Jan. 10, 1:30 p.m., Big 12 Network
No. 6 North Carolina (14-1) at No. 10 Wake Forest (13-0), Sunday Jan. 11, 8 p.m., Fox Sports Net
No. 13 Kansas State (11-3) at No. 18 Kansas (11-3), Tuesday Jan. 13, 8 p.m., Big 12 Network
No. 35 Syracuse (15-1) at No. 5 Georgetown (10-3), Wednesday Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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