The Illinois State University men's basketball team had high expectations going into this season.
Despite losing four starters from last year’s Missouri Valley Conference championship team, the Redbirds were guardedly optimistic that talented transfers and recruits, as well as maturing returning players, would lead to similar success this season. But a slew of preseason injuries and academic issues decimated the anticipated strong lineup.
Despite playing shorthanded during a strong non-conference schedule, the Redbirds surprised a few talented teams. But they also underperformed against teams head coach Dan Muller feels they should have beat. The 6th year coach took a deep breath, shook his head ever so slightly as he flashed a “what if” grin when asked about what could have been. He did concede the early season adversity has had some upside for a team he calls “a great group of guys.”
“They needed to change some habits of body language or energy level or just understanding what it takes to be successful,” said Muller. “But I don’t think we would have grown as much if we wouldn’t have had the schedule we had.”
Foot injuries to returning 7-foot junior center Daouda "David" N'Diaye and incoming freshman point guard Elijah Clarance during the non-conference season, as well as academic issues that has shelved touted transfer guard Zach Copeland for the season, has had Muller scrambling to put a productive lineup on the floor. The defensive presence of the shot-blocking N’Diaye and offense prowess of the incoming Copeland were especially missed.
“I could have done without the injuries,” chuckled Muller. “I think a couple games would have been different, though I think we still could have faced some adversity. But I like where we are right now. I wish our record was better, and I think it should be. But I do think we’ve grown a ton.”
As has the coach.
Known for his steady-as-she-goes demeanor on the sidelines whether winning or losing, Muller this year has been out of character, displaying more emotion in a half season than seemingly in the previous five. He said it’s been a frustrating season for him thus far, and a learning experience for him.
“I have been frustrated this year because our highs and lows have had such variation. As a coach you want consistency, you don’t want peaks and valleys, you want a little arc up and down. I get very frustrated when guys have bad body language or react poorly to bad calls. I’m big on mindset. But that’s what a young, inexperienced team does sometimes,” said Muller.
Muller has taken a different approach to scheduling and recruiting than his predecessor, Tim Jankovich, now the head coach at SMU. Where Jankovich shied away from a tough schedule, Muller embraces it.
“I want our fans to be excited about the games we play at home. I want our team to build toughness through playing good teams. I think the best way to build toughness is to play hard teams and face adversity,” said Muller.
And he believes it helps recruit better players.
“When we recruit players, we sell that we’re going to play certain types of games, venues and tournaments,” said Muller. “I think that has helped us in recruiting and I’ll continue to do it.”
Those recruits have been noticeably “longer” and more athletic on average than Redbird fans are used to seeing.
“We look certainly for long athletic types,” said Muller. “Yet you have to have a certain type of skill in there, so that’s where the balance comes in.”
Those types of players and the intentionally difficult schedule seems to indicate Muller believes his teams can compete deep into the NCAA basketball tournament.
“We recruit to compete against every team in the country,” said Muller. “And I think the best way for us to do that is to have those long athletes, develop their skill, and put weight on them.”
Some of those talented athletes come with issues. Often a strong ego accompanies a strong player; sometimes academic issues dog these players. It’s an interesting match of personalities, challenges, and expectations for a coach known for his strict adherence to rules and decorum.
“Some of the greatest joys in coaching is taking a kid who needs guidance and/or discipline and help them change their life and their future,” explained Muller. “That is so enjoyable. Now sometimes they won’t change and those are the kids that have transferred.”
He said he’s upfront during the recruiting process.
“There are certain things I believe. Character as a person, the way as a person and young person you’re supposed to act. And I’m not going to jeopardize my moral compass to win games. Yet you have to be flexible with some kids. It’s a fun part of coaching and a frustrating part of coaching. But it’s really, really enjoyable when you get to see a kid legitimately change his life.”
Illinois State next plays Sunday, Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. in Redbird Arena against league-leading Missouri State.
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Muller:
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