WICHITA — The final buzzer sounds; another frustration for the Illinois State Redbirds.
The 9-3 record the Redbirds carried into Missouri Valley Conference play seems like forever ago now. After starting the year with a senior-laden roster and hopes of dancing in the NCAA tournament, first-year coach Dan Muller’s team falls to 0-6 in Valley play, losing on the road to Wichita State 74-62.
It’s the low point in a year with such high expectations, and it’s starting to wear on the Rebirds.
Jackie Carmichael knows this low feeling. He also knows there’s still the chance to fix it.
Carmichael ended his high school career with a similar low moment. He now calls those weeks his favorite basketball memories from high school. They also gave him the chance to joke with the man who would eventually offer him a spot at Illinois State — Tim Jankovich, who just happens to be a fellow Manhattan High grad.
“Senior year, we finally won sub-state, and it had been a long time,” Carmichael said. “Coach Jankovich’s team won it in the 70s, so he calls me up before the state game, and told me I needed to lose to protect his school record.”
Jankovich’s 1977 team finished as state runner-up and is tied for the best finish at state in school history.
“We end up losing, we’re the No. 1 seed, and we lose in the first round,” Carmichael said. “But winning that sub-state, being the top seed and being able to work with those guys and achieving something like that was awesome.”
That Indians team finished 20-3 and is easily the most talented team to play for Manhattan High coach Tim Brooks. The 6-foot-9 Carmichael blossomed into a full-blown star by his senior year at MHS, pairing with Sam Kenney to lead the Indians to the top seed in the state tournament. But getting to that point required hard work.
Carmichael started playing organized basketball in third grade in the Youth Services leagues on base at Fort Riley. All four of the Carmichael children went to school on base because their mom, Janelle Russell, taught physical education there.
Carmichael then played for Fort Riley Middle School, facing some of his future teammates at Anthony and Eisenhower middle schools in Manhattan. He would join them as a 6-5 freshman, much to the delight of then-first-year coach Brooks.
“I remember watching him as a freshman, and he was like a baby deer running around out there,” Brooks said. “It was almost like he had to catch up to his body. He had so much athletic ability. He’d played basketball, we had him involved. But it just took awhile. You could almost see his improvement daily.”
In the early years, Carmichael served as a defensive force because of his height and athleticism. The offensive prowess came later.
“When he was young, we didn’t have to rely on him with scoring,” Brooks said. “He’d have games with seven or eight blocked shots. But by the time he was a senior, he really took it upon himself to be the man inside, and had some very dominant games. I think he scored 34 one game as a senior, so you’re doing something right if you can put the ball in the hole that much.”
Though he wasn’t breaking Jankovich’s records, Carmichael’s abilities as a dominant post had an impact on the Manhattan High record books. He is the all-time leader in blocked shots with 235 over his three-year career. He averaged 3.5 per game at MHS. He’s also the single-season school-record holder for defensive rebounds. Carmichael is second on the all-time list for free throws made and attempted, behind Greg Gaskins (‘03), and second behind JT Marshall (‘87) in offensive, defensive and total rebounds. His 865 career points are third on the list, behind Marshall (1,097) and Gaskins (1,001) in only three years of varsity action.
With such a dominating senior season in the books, Carmichael got attention from plenty of schools at all levels. But not everybody was sold on him.
Carmichael didn’t receive offers from any of the Division-I schools in Kansas, with concerns over makeup and whether he would reach his potential at the forefront. Kansas State coach Frank Martin, looking for his first recruiting class after Michael Beasley and Bill Walker the year before, didn’t pull the trigger. Even Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, who now plays against Carmichael at least twice a year and sees the player he’s become, didn’t offer a scholarship.
“I always wanted to play high-major,” Carmichael said. “Obviously, I would have loved to stay and play in Kansas, whether it was Wichita State, Kansas State or Kansas. I’m not going to single out any school, but obviously I would have loved to stay here and play in front of hometown fans or in my home state.
“But God had other plans for me, and it’s been a great experience.”
At the end of the day, Carmichael is thankful to have landed at Illinois State, even if it is a bit further from home.
“I just wanted to go play basketball,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere and play and become a better basketball player, and go somewhere where I could evolve as a player, and I feel like Illinois State gave me that opportunity.”
At that time, Jankovich, who played on great teams at K-State in the early 1980s, had been recruiting Carmichael to his new job at Illinois State. Between people in Manhattan that still keep in contact and his recruiting responsibilities as Bill Self’s top assistant at Kansas the years prior, Jankovich knew plenty about Carmichael.
“I started hearing some things when he was either a sophomore or junior in high school,” he said. “Some people starting talking to me and saying there’s a really good guy at Manhattan High, and of course, that’s all I needed to hear.”
The time between Carmichael’s final game at Manhattan High and his arrival at Illinois State proved to be difficult.
Carmichael had offers from various schools at every level, but decided to put off his college choice a year and attend South Kent Prep in South Kent, Conn.
“I didn’t really like any of the college choices I had coming out of high school,” Carmichael said. “Obviously, I was still working on a couple of grades, trying to figure out whether to go the Juco route or the prep-school route. I ended up getting to play another summer of AAU basketball, which I feel like helped me out a lot, and then went to prep school and played, which helped.”
Carmichael’s mother said the recruiting process is difficult, with pressure from programs and coaches to find the most comfortable situation going forward.
“People who have not been through that process don’t realize how overwhelming that is,” Russell said. “Because they’re still kids. They might be 18 years old and getting ready to head off to college, but they’re just kids.”
Russell said sifting through what’s true and what isn’t can be hard.
“We’ve had numerous coaches sit at our kitchen table,” she said. “You get the good and the bad. If they want him bad enough, they’ll tell you pretty much anything you want to hear -— and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but that’s just the way it is.”
Before even leaving for Connecticut late in the summer, Carmichael received several offers from different Division-I schools that had players back out of their commitments or not make grades. But Carmichael honored his commitment to play in South Kent, turning down those scholarships.
“This was a one in a million,” Jankovich said. “He’d given his word, he and his family, to the coach at South Kent that he would be going there. After he did that, he was offered more scholarships, (Illinois State) included, but he had given his word. They were so ethical and morally right, that they held to their word.
“I was just blown away by that.”
During his time at prep school, Carmichael was still unsure of where he would land to play college ball, but got an unexpected recruiting pitch when he attended a first-round NIT tournament basketball game at K-State when the Wildcats played against Jankovich’s Illinois State Redbirds.
“It was kind of random — I came home for spring break and they actually played K-State in the first round of the NIT, so I decided to go check them out,” Carmichael said. “I flew out there for a one-day recruiting trip, which is kind of unheard of because it’s so fast. But they wanted to do it and get it done with, I flew out and a couple days later and made my decision.”
Just like that, Carmichael’s recruitment was over, and Jankovich, in a situation he called “lucky,” landed a guy he knew had the potential to be a special player.
“I couldn’t believe more people weren’t recruiting him,” Jankovich said. “He had all the qualities that I look for. I was sure that he had the potential to be a great player. Not kind of sure — I was positive. He had all the attributes, if he worked at his game, to make a lot of money playing basketball someday.”
Jankovich’s Manhattan roots helped Carmichael feel comfortable in his decision, and the Illinois State campus in Normal proved to have a Manhattan-like feel to it, which put the school over the top.
“Honestly, it was like Manhattan,” he said. “It has that hometown feel. It’s a college town, so it feels like you know everybody. Everyone is so welcoming, and made me feel like I’d been there forever.”
Once Carmichael arrived in Normal, he immediately became an impact player for the Redbirds. While his offensive skills needed refinement to catch up to the college game, his ability to rebound and block shots were instinctive.
In limited minutes as a freshman, Carmichael scored nearly seven points a game and grabbed four rebounds. As a sophomore, those numbers jumped to 10 and five. His junior year he broke out, averaging 14 points and nine boards. Now he leads the team in both scoring and rebounding with 18 and nine.
“His progress at Illinois State was about like his progress here,” Brooks said. “They didn’t expect a ton out of him offensively. He impacted games defensively and with rebounding, like he did when he was young here. Now when you look every time in the paper, he’s getting a double-double.”
Carmichael said both Jankovich and Muller have helped him to improve as a player.
Jankovich moved on to take an assistant position under Larry Brown at Southern Methodist prior to this season, with Muller replacing him at Illinois State.
“They’ve given me so much more of a skillset,” he said. “They’ve given me more moves, different ways to approach things and different ways to think about things. The more people you have helping you, the better off you’re going to be. They’ve helped my game tremendously.”
Jankovich said Carmichael’s progress at Illinois State was obvious from year to year, but last season was when he really buckled down and committed to doing what it takes to become a professional.
“He’s always wanted to play professionally,” Jankovich said. “So I was trying to be painfully honest about what it takes, how much hard work, what kind of performances you need to have on a nightly basis, the kind of numbers you need to put up, particularly rebounding numbers. And he really bought into all of it and had a tremendous year last year. He basically averaged a double-double, which is what he needed to do.”
Jankovich mentioned his offensive skills have grown by leaps and bounds, but his intangibles are just as noticeable.
“He’s really grown in every area as an athlete,” he said. “Not just his skills, but his competitive fire, his toughness, his knowledge of the game, determination, all those things have done nothing but get better.”
In the age of one-and-done players, and future-superstars using colleges to audition for the NBA, the four-year player has gone by the wayside in recent years. Players that stay in school, polish their game and improve every year often find themselves playing in Europe or overseas, not in the league.
Consider Carmichael a throwback.
After his junior season at Illinois State, Carmichael received an invitation to the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas, a camp for elite college players who have NBA potential. Among that top competition, Carmichael was praised for his variety of post moves and jump hooks, while also his ability to rebound and defend.
“Just being able to play against other top-tier talent,” Carmichael said when asked about the biggest advantage the camp provided him. “Obviously, you get to play against guys on your team and go here and there, but to play against guys like Mason Plumlee and Doug McDermott, guys like that who are heavily regarded, and to go up against them and perform well is huge. I felt like I was going to be a hard player to guard and came in with extra confidence.”
Since that camp, Carmichael’s stock as a potential NBA draft pick has been rising, with most draft experts and pundits expecting him to be picked in the second round.
Like most athletes, Carmichael wants to play the game as long as he can.
“My ultimate goal is to be the best basketball player I can possibly be,” he said. “Obviously, I would love to play in the NBA — I would love to be drafted and play in the league and check that off my list. As a basketball player, that’s about the highest peak you can get.”
Should he fall short of that dream, Carmichael still wants to play professionally, wherever it takes him, even if his mother would like him to stay closer.
“I’d prefer he not end up in Korea or Spain or someplace like that,” Russell said. “But all kidding aside, if he has an opportunity to play overseas, I think that’s something he would definitely want to take advantage of. We would completely support him in that, just as we have up to this point.”
Brooks said it’s Carmichael’s work ethic that has carried him this far.
“You could just tell he had so much potential,” Brooks said. “For him to reach that potential, like he has, says a lot about his work ethic, because right now he’s really good and has a chance to make money at the game of basketball.
“He’s put the time in without sacrificing what type of person he is.”
Brooks said everything he’s seen and heard indicates Carmichael has a shot at the next level.
“I heard that he turned a lot of heads,” Brooks said. “Somewhere on a website, mentioned him right away on being an unknown and really standing out. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Every time he’s on TV, they mention something about him being a prospect.”
That cold night in Wichita earlier this month may have been the catalyst for something bigger for Carmichael and his Redbirds.
While his team was flustered by the atmosphere inside Koch Arena and the talent of the now-Valley-leading No. 20 Shockers, Illinois State never gave up, turning a 19-point deficit at the six-minute mark into a seven-point game at the end with a furious rally. Carmichael did his usual thing — 22 points and nine rebounds.
The chance at a Valley championship is gone now, but the Redbirds have won two straight league games to pull themselves out of the Valley cellar. To dance now, they’ll have to win the MVC tournament in March.
With a talent like Carmichael, anything is possible.