Twenty-six days after Illinois State suffered its disappointing loss to Drake in the second round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, ISU head coach Dan Muller sat comfortably in his office, going over game notes.
Not only does his work ethic embody Redbird basketball’s “tough” and “selfless” culture, it is his desire and drive to lift ISU to new heights each season.
But Muller knows where his shortcomings were this past year, as the Redbirds put together a mediocre 17-16 record, solely highlighted with a 12-4 record at Redbird Arena.
“You know, it’s the first year in a while that I feel like we really had a tough year,” Muller said. “Not that we’ve achieved everything we wanted to of course, but in life you have a great chance to learn from adversity and failure as long as you take a step back and evaluate it. That’s always the goal.”
While the word “culture” has been surrounding both the trials and triumphs of Illinois State’s program, both in vain and in praise, Muller asserts that the learning curve starts in the offseason.
And that starts now.
“Whether it’s in season or after the season,” he explained, leaning back in his chair, “any of the adversity that we faced helped our players grow. Our culture took a hit last year. I don’t think our team represented the university and the program like we’re supposed to.”
Frustrated yet optimistic, Muller remained in the same state of mind he had after the team’s loss at Arch Madness, unavoidably taking matters into his own hands.
“It’s my job as a coach to figure out how to make sure that it just didn’t happen this year, but never happens again," he said. "I have no doubt we’ll get back to it next year. I’m still disappointed, but like I said, I don’t think we did a good job representing Illinois State this year.”
Moving on from the Milik Yarbrough, Keyshawn Evans and Phil Fayne era, Muller is excited to see new products, both returning and recruited, flourish on the court in the months to come.
“Every year it’s a new team,” he continued. “We have five guys that sat back and watched the entire year. They were great voices to our eligible players, they learned the lessons and they saw what we did wrong. [The players] just have to build that chemistry and that trust to get it done together.”
Some of those five guys include formerly ineligible returners in Keith Fisher, Dedric Boyd and Taylor Bruninga. When Muller was asked if they were able to “carry that [culture] forward,” Muller did not hesitate in his response.
“I believe they can,” Muller stated strongly. “I think we have a bunch of guys that are ready to compete. We have guys that don’t want to repeat kind of what happened this year.”
Fischer is expected, in Muller's eyes, to step up and be the clear leader Illinois State needs both on and off the hardwood.
"Keith is one of our better natural leaders. Hell, [he] was a captain this year and it's hard to be a captain when you're not playing as much or when you're a transfer," Muller said. "He did a great job trying to lead last year, but now that he's eligible to play, I think it'll be easier for him to make an impact on others."
While clear leadership seemed to be one of the many things the 'Birds lacked in Missouri Valley Conference play, Muller says adversity breeds maturity where confidence is sure to follow.
"One thing I told the team a lot of this year," he explained, "is you're either going to be a great leader or a great follower, because if you're neither, you're just an individual on the team. You're going to have great leadership, but if you don't have guys that don't want to follow, you're not going to have the year that you want to have."
With that leadership striving to be shown in-game, those clipboard-clad on the sidelines are where leaders are bred and vetted. Amid the recent departure of former assistant and now SIU assistant coach Brendan Mullins, Muller wishes nothing but the best for one of his two-year staffers.
“[Mullins] did a great job,” he said. “I grew as a coach because of him. He’s really passionate about the game, he cares about the players and wants to get better. He’s got a great work ethic and has really impacted the program in a lot of ways. Academics, recruiting, coaching, skill development, relationships with players and relationships with people in the community... We’ll miss him.”
As change is ultimately prevalent early in the offseason, evolving from the Yarbrough-Fayne-Evans trio, the future is bright in Muller's eyes for his departing big three, especially for First Team All-MVC selection Fayne.
"Oh, he's going to play professionally. Where? Who knows, but he will play," Muller said. "He's going to work out and have opportunities, he's in the process of hiring an agent."
As far as Yarbrough, Muller commented that he was invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Portsmouth, Virginia April 17-20, in hopes that both he and Fayne would test NBA draft waters come summer.
Muller also addressed the look of the team without the senior-triad, attributing to their impact as well as offering insight towards the future state of ISU basketball.
"A lot of points, rebounds and assists are graduating and anytime you have all those statistical categories leave, there's a lot open spots for other guys," Muller said. "I’m excited about our group. That’s all I know. I'm itching to get back on the court with our team. We’re certainly still going to add a couple pieces but I think we’re going to be really good if we compete like Illinois State basketball is supposed to."