The 2016-2017 Illinois State men’s basketball season was certainly a memorable one. The entertaining style of play, conference dominance, compilation of personalities, experience and overall level of talent on the roster made for one of the best teams in program history.
A 25-5 mark as well as a 17-1 conference record led to a share claim of the regular season conference championship.
A campaign that successful undoubtedly sets the bar high for the program’s upcoming seasons.
This season’s roster — one that was vastly inexperienced, young and in search of an identity — had its ups and downs in the 2017-18 sequel season.
After the NCAA committee’s travesty of a decision to leave the Redbirds out of the national tournament, ISU head coach Dan Muller went to Twitter with an agenda to put the “higher up” programs in the Power-5 conferences of NCAA on notice. He let everyone know he wouldn’t hesitate to schedule a quality program.
This allowed for Muller to schedule games against competition that would strengthen the teams’ resume for a potential tournament berth if they did not win the conference tournament outright.
Games against teams that are typically in contention for tournament bids like Nevada, FGCU, BYU, and Ole Miss came as almost a direct result of Muller’s strategic and resourceful efforts.
The Redbirds entered the season knowing they would have a tough non-conference portion of the schedule. Some stout competition would expedite the learning curve of the group as the team started the season 5-6 against the likes of FGCU, Nevada, BYU, Ole Miss, Murray State and Ole Miss.
The team, while experimenting with lineup combinations and minutes rotations, was able to put together a modest start with all things considered.
Heading into conference play, the Redbirds found themselves at .500 with a 6-6 record.
In the start of conference play, ISU found themselves in the thick of things atop the conference ranks. However, a two-game road skid just after the midway point of conference play would position them in seventh place (their lowest ranking on the season) with a 4-5 conference record.
However, they would then respond directly to this low with a very timely four-game win streak while dealing with injuries to key players Keyshawn Evans and Phil Fayne.
Increased overall activity and impact from All-Conference First Team forward Milik Yarbrough would prove to be vital as he began showing flashes of his true potential. This worked perfectly in combination with multiple supplemental efforts from middle-to-end of the rotation players like Madison Williams, Matt Hein, Taylor Bruninga, David Ndiaye.
That stretch would re-position the Redbirds in the top-four of the conference, which is where they would stay for the remainder of the season.
Also during this stretch, ISU found its scoring stride to jolt to its 75-point team average per game.
The team was also able to solve their issue of defending without fouling, as early on in the season, this occurred often and plagued them by throwing off the rotations and rhythm of their game.
In all, the regular season was full of up’s and down’s but they would finish strong and garner the third-place slot at the end of regular season play.
After finishing the regular season strong, the Redbirds would position themselves on the more-friendly side of the Missouri Valley Conference bracket for tournament play in St. Louis.
ISU would play very well in tight competition through the first two games of the tournament, defeating Indiana State and Southern Illinois to position themselves in the same situation it was in a season ago.
For ISU, this would have been the only way for them to get into the NCAA Tournament, as their record was not good enough to earn automatic-bid considerations from the committee.
The Redbirds turned cold from the field against regular-season champion Loyola to drop the season finale, 65-49.
The season as a whole would end short of the tournament, but the Redbirds can consider this one a success due to their experiences as well as the growth they showed from start to finish is promising moving forward.
The increased overall play of Yarbrough as the season progressed cannot go unnoted. His level of play became dominant and garnered legitimate consideration for conference Player of the Year. Expect for him to continue to come into his own next season, as he should be in that conversation for the conference’s best player yet again.
Next would be the activity shown by William Tinsley. His efforts allowed for the Redbirds to play “small ball” and remain athletic and extremely versatile with a frontcourt trio of Tinsley, Yarbrough and Fayne. When Tinsley’s activity was effective, which occurred consistently in the final nine games of the regular season and in the conference tournament, he was shooting 47 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3-point and grabbed six rebounds while also becoming the team’s best blocked shot threat.
The man in the middle for the ‘Birds, Fayne, had a great showing in the conference tournament. In those three games, Fayne averaged 18 points on 54 percent shooting along with 10 rebounds a game.
That activity on the glass and defensively effort from the Redbirds’ emotional leader not only is infectious for the team, but also adds a dynamic that makes them tough to beat.
Looking at Next Season
Next season, there is no reason why ISU should not have conference championship aspirations, as well as a level of accountability in place amongst themselves to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
Should everyone return, Muller will have a plethora of talented and experienced athletes at his disposal.
This, in turn, should make for an exciting and intriguing season from start to finish for followers of ISU men’s basketball.