It’s hard not to feel bad for Illinois State.

The Redbirds went into Sunday’s Missouri Valley Championship Game trying to do the impossible: beat Wichita State and Northern Iowa in consecutive days.

That may sound dramatic considering the MVC is a mid-major conference – but Wichita State and Northern Iowa aren’t mid-major programs. The Shockers and Panthers were locks to make the NCAA tournament (as top 5 seeds, in fact) no matter what happened this past weekend. 

But Illinois State needed to beat both teams to go dancing for the first time since 1998.

A day after shocking the Shockers with a huge second half – just Wichita’s second loss since New Years Day and fourth all year long – the Redbirds stayed hot and went into the locker room at halftime up 14 on Northern Iowa yesterday.

Common reaction among college basketball fans everywhere: “Holy shit, ISU is gonna do it. Nobody beats Northern Iowa and Wichita State. They only beat each other.”

And then came the second half meltdown.

Northern Iowa showed why they only have three losses themselves, blitzing ISU 47-24 in the second half to crush the Redbirds’ March Madness dreams. Poor kids probably didn’t even know what hit them until a few minutes after the game.

The heartbreaker was a microcosm of ISU’s strong, yet disappointing, season. 10 of their 11 regular season defeats were by single digits – including eight by six or less. One of those was a 54-53 killer to the same Northern Iowa team in Bloomington on January 25th.

Absolutely brutal.

It’s even worse when you think about what a trip to the Dance would have meant for the program – one that’s only had six losing seasons since 1991, but hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in over 15 years. This was ISU’s fifth 20-win season since 2007, and probably their best chance yet for the priceless national recognition that comes with a tournament bid.

In a state that’s dominated athletically by two Big Ten teams and the Northern Illinois football program, athletic accomplishments matter a lot more for Illinois State. After all, that’s what life is like as the little brother.

But back in the fall, the Redbirds football team certainly didn’t act like a little brother. Riding former Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson, Illinois State started 13-1 before losing to powerhouse North Dakota State in the FCS Championship game.

When it comes to FCS football, NDSU is basically Alabama. In the last four years, they’ve beaten Division I opponents Iowa State, Colorado State, Kansas State and Minnesota en route to winning four consecutive national championships. The only one that was close?

This past season against ISU, of course.

After the Redbirds took a four-point lead with under two minutes to go, NDSU scored a minute later to keep their championship streak alive. Even more than basketball, which competes in Division I, a national title in football would have brought invaluable respect to the Redbird sports brand.

Even as an Illinois grad – one of the so-called “big brothers” – I couldn’t help but notice that it’s been a brutal year for that brand. Hell, I couldn’t help but pull for the Redbirds both yesterday and back in the fall.

With a road trip to Iowa on the schedule for the football team this year and a solid hoops core moving forward, it looks like the little brother will have their moment soon enough.