Dan Muller is used to dealing with lots of unknowns heading into a basketball season. But his ninth season as Illinois State University men’s hoops coach will most certainly include more unknowns than any other.
The Redbirds and the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference are preparing to play basketball during a pandemic.
Muller said the coronavirus has created a lot of uncertainty, from the campus shutdown over the spring and summer to quarantines and travel restrictions.
He said that made for a sloppy first practice on Wednesday.
“You could see the time that we missed this summer and the time that we missed this fall, for quarantines or just because we couldn’t get guys here," Muller said. "You could see that we are further behind than normal years.”
A junior college transfer from Moscow, Russia, Alex Kotov was delayed getting to campus because of COVID-travel restrictions, but arrived just before the fall semester began, said Bill Salyer, ISU’s assistant director of athletics communications.
It's still not certain when the season will start. Muller said ISU will likely open on Nov. 25 at a multi-team tournament in Nebraska.
He said the non-conference schedule should be out by next week. The MVC schedule has ISU opening Dec. 30 at Evansville and hosting Southern Illinois on Jan. 3.
There will be more unknowns once the season starts. Muller said playing during a pandemic means you have to prepare for anything.
“We are going to have some games canceled,” Muller predicted. “We are going to have some days where someone on the team is gone for a week or two. It’s just going to be a year where you are going to have to handle adversity, and part of that adversity is it’s going to be a little sloppier.”
There will be no preseason scrimmages, exhibition games or even a Hoopfest tip-off event for fans. There also will likely be few if any fans allowed at the games.
The players, he said, "have come to grips with it just because we talk about it a lot and we’ve seen it on NFL games and Major League Baseball games, we’ve seen it happen with those leagues. That doesn’t mean you are prepared for it.”
Muller said experience is important in a season like this. That's something the Redbirds will be short on with seven players gone from a team which finished 10-21 last season, their worst in 14 years. The departures include leading scorer Zach Copeland and two central Illinois natives who decided to end their basketball careers early after numerous injuries--Matt Chastain of LeRoy and Taylor Bruninga from Illini Bluffs.
The Redbirds have added 11 newcomers, including four transfers.
The MVC preseason poll released Thursday has ISU picked to finish 9th in the 10-team league. Northern Iowa was tabbed the favorite, followed by Loyola and Bradley.
ISU’s Keith Fisher III was named to the MVC Preseason Third Team.
The ISU women were picked to finish fifth in the MVC this season under fourth-year coach Kristen Gillespie.
The ISU women return two All-MVC honorees Paige Saylor and Juliunn Redmond, from a team that finished 19-10 last season.
The Redbird women also are waiting for release of their regular season schedule. The team's MVC slate begins Dec. 31 against Northern Iowa at Redbird Arena.
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