Adversity seems to be the tallest task heading into the 2020-21 season, and according to Illinois State University men’s basketball head coach Dan Muller, the team that can best handle the adversity set ahead of them will have the most success.
The Redbirds have had their fair share of adversity through the first two months of the fall semester, as they returned for their first practice on Wednesday, six weeks ahead of the official start date for college basketball.
Between Illinois State University’s high COVID-19 case rate and the Black Lives Matter protests that filled the campus in September, the Redbirds have had ample rest time.
Yet that does not bode well for a team full of youths. Muller noted that everything has been odd thus far, and a sloppy first practice is to be expected.
“First day was sloppy; lots of new guys are learning what it takes to be successful in Division I basketball. You can see the time that we missed this summer and the time that we missed this fall. Whether it was for quarantine or we couldn’t get guys here, you can see that we are further behind than normal years,” Muller said.
“I don’t think the players have a feel, everything is just so weird. I don’t think they feel further behind, or they feel that things are a lot different, I think they just feel sore.”
Nine players occupying the team are new to ISU, and Muller realizes that with the number of new names donning the Redbird jerseys this year, it is going to take time to adjust back to normal. Muller called the group of newbies fun to coach, but still has much work to do.
“I don’t expect them to be veterans, I just expect them to get better and be coachable. And whether we are not good at the beginning of the year, as long as we are getting better,” Muller said.
The youth on the team will be a fundamental part to the Redbirds season, but who is going to step up to lead the team?
Keith Fisher III and DJ Horne are expected to pick up the scoring output that guard Zach Copeland accomplished a year ago. After getting selected for the Missouri Valley Conference Preseason Third-Team, Fisher III as the lone Redbird senior is the only player from the team to be recognized in the preseason rankings. Sophomore Antonio Reeves is expected to transition into a consistent scoring threat, and Muller also had high praise for junior Josiah Strong.
A player who burst onto the scene last year for Redbird basketball is expected to take the next step and become a leader for the program. That being Horne, who as a sophomore has an opportunity to be someone his teammates can count on.
“The next step for DJ is to be a leader, and yet as a sophomore that’s hard,” Muller said.
“I don’t think he should be a perfect leader, but he has got to be a guy that can help guys play better. He’s got to be a guy that is consistent with his focus, mindset and body language.”
Also mentioned by Muller was for Horne to improve his off-the-ball defense.
Muller confirmed that the Redbirds will be traveling to Nebraska to compete in a multi-team event hosting 16 teams. He was unsure of what would be on ISU’s slate, but expects eight non-conference games.
With so much uncertainty accompanying this college basketball season, Muller has been constantly preaching to his guys to expect the unexpected. Games will get canceled, players may have to leave the team for a period of time, and transportation issues are very well possible.
Handling all of these distractions in a season will test anyone stepping on the hardwood this winter. Whoever can persevere though through the adversity and maintain focus in a season like none other will come out on top.