The Illinois State men’s basketball 2016-17 season abruptly ended in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament in March with the Redbirds falling to Central Florida in the closing seconds in front of a noisy home crowd.
Hearts were broken, heads were down, but the page must now turn to next season.
Despite an absence of a handful of contributors to ISU’s historic season, the future looks bright for Dan Muller’s squad.
The upcoming 2017-18 season for the Redbirds will be played without point guard Paris Lee and forwards Tony Wills, Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh—all starters that graduated in May.
“We lost guys that have been here for three or four years,” ISU head coach Muller said. “We lost leadership, too, but we’ve got guys capable and talented enough to fill those roles but you have to earn them.”
Hawkins announced last Monday that he will opt to extend his eligibility by transferring to Boston College. Forward MiKyle McIntosh has also graduated and elected to transfer, but his destination has yet to be determined.
Junior guard Keyshawn Evans tore his labrum and underwent reparation surgery in early April. The sixth-man is expected to miss approximately four to six months.
Perhaps the most significant departure this offseason wasn’t important to only ISU, but the entire Missouri Valley Conference.
The Wichita State Shockers shared the regular season championship last season with the Redbirds after winning it the past three seasons. However, Wichita announced in April that they are leaving the MVC for the American Athletic Conference, a move that takes effect on July 1.
Valparaiso University has since been named the replacement to the conference by a unanimous vote.
The 2017-18 season features another talented roster and many new faces on the court for the Redbirds. For starters, freshman guard Elijah Clarance is slated to be the first-ever Redbird to hail from Sweden. Clarance led his high school team to a 29-9 record and averaged 18.7 points with 4.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game at St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, Md.
Clarance is a playmaker on both sides of the ball and has been improving on his change of pace as well as his defense in the past few months.
ISU has also landed the California Community College Player of the Year Zach Copeland. Copeland is a 6-foot-4 guard transfer from City College of San Francisco and a native of Oakland, Calif. He averaged 18.7 points per game and shot 49.1 percent from the floor and 47.7 percent from three during his sophomore year.
A native closer to the area is incoming freshman Taylor Bruninga. The 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward attended Illini Bluffs High School in Mapleton, Ill. He played impressed many during his senior year, averaging 33.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. He also shot 60.4 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from three.
The Redbirds have also added Saint Louis transfer forward Milik Yarbrough, Loyola transfer Matt Chastain and Lake Land College transfer guard William Tinsley.
“Well, all of these guys have a chance to contribute but to what level, I’m not sure yet,” Muller said. “You aren’t sure what a kid is like or what they are capable of until you have them on the court every day for multiple weeks,” Muller said.
Lastly, assistant coach Dean Oliver also left the Redbird staff and accepted an assistant coaching position for the University of Wisconsin. ISU has subsequently hired DeAndre Haynes as his replacement just last month.
ISU appears to be primed for another shot at the MVC title and its first NCAA tournament bid since 1998.
However, the Redbirds will not have a senior on the team this season. It might take some time for the players to get a better feeling for each other on and off the court, but at the end of the day, everyone has the same goal in mind: to win.