Illinois State men's basketball coach Dan Muller isn't shy about his lofty expectations for the Redbirds this season.
“This could be the best team we’ve had if we can stay healthy,” Muller declared during the Redbird media day news conference on Wednesday. “That says a lot because we had a really good team two years ago.”
Muller’s 2016-17 Redbirds won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship and finished with a program-best 28 wins.
The Redbirds return four starters from a team which finished 18-15 last season.
Part of the Redbirds' success could hinge on the status of Milik Yarbrough, the team's leading scorer from last season. The senior forward is currently on suspension after a traffic arrest last month.
Yarbrough has been practicing with the team and hopes to have a big impact this season.
“We feel like this is bigger than us,” Yarbrough said. “This is going to be a game-changer for the whole school because we feel like we can be the best team that ever played here.”
Muller said he's waiting on more information about the Yarbrough case before making final decisions about his status.
He added he's still looking for big things from Yarbrough, but suggested he has some catching up to do.
“Obviously the last month has been tough for him. He had to handle a lot,” Muller said. “He’s improved and being away from the team for a couple of weeks, he got out of shape. We’ve been working on getting him in the shape (he was) before that.”
Senior forward Phil Fayne, the team’s leading rebounder last season, said he’s added 10 pounds in the offseason to better handle the physical rigors of Missouri Valley Conference play.
“A lot of opponents we play, there are going to be some real strong dudes down there, so it just gets me a lot stronger, more physical,” Fayne said.
Muller said he is incorporating a new offensive scheme to capitalize on what he views is his potentially most explosive scoring team.
Senior guard Keyshawn Evans, the team’s third-leading scorer last season, welcomes the change, but said he doesn’t want to lose focus on the other end of the court.
“Offense is the fun part, but you still have to focus on defense in my opinion,” Evans said. “Defense is the thing that makes great teams, championship teams."
Perhaps it was karma, but Matt Hein got back his scholarship.
The junior guard from Windermere, Florida, offered to return his scholarship this spring so the Redbirds could use it to land San Jose State transfer forward Keith Fisher III.
“I felt like to get a player for my following year, to get somebody of great capabilities to help this program win, that’s what I did,” Hein said.
The Redbirds had reached the maximum number of scholarships, but after Elijah Clarence left the team to play professional in Europe, the team returned the scholarship to Hein.
“It’s funny how the tide had turned, somebody leaves and then I get it back," Hein said. "God works in mysterious ways."
The Redbirds open against Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 6 at Redbird Arena.
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