NORMAL — Phil Fayne and Keyshawn Evans know why Illinois State's basketball team earned a share of last season's Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship.

The Redbirds' new players are getting a taste of that already this summer. 

"As older dudes we look back at last year and what really got us to where we were, and that was defense," said Fayne, a 6-foot-9 junior forward who will be ISU's lone returning starter. "We're emphasizing defense to the newcomers and showing them defense is the way to go."

Evans, a 6-foot junior guard who was a top reserve, is trying to pass on the mindset he received from Paris Lee and Tony Wills. 

"Last year it felt embarrassed if you got scored on," said Evans. 

NCAA rules allow coaches access to their players for two hours per week for eight weeks in the summer.

ISU coach Dan Muller said the first two weeks this summer were spent on individual drills because not all the players were on campus yet. Since everyone arrived, most of the last three weeks has been devoted strictly to the defensive end as a team.

"We lost some great defenders, but if the effort, toughness and commitment are there we can be a great defensive team again," said Muller. "That can't happen without those returners setting the tone and making sure, through their actions, the newcomers understand how important it is to compete on the defensive end."

ISU held opponents to 37.9 percent field goal shooting and 61.3 points per game to rank fifth and seventh, respectively, in the nation. That enabled the Redbirds to ring up a school-record 28 victories and 17-1 mark in the Valley, another school best.

Starters Lee, Wills, MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins have moved on. Besides Fayne and Evans, the only other rotation players returning include 7-foot junior center David Ndiaye and sophomore guard Madison Williams.

Three of ISU's newcomers — transfers Milik Yarbrough (Saint Louis) and Christian Romine (UTEP) and walk-on Isaac Gassman — redshirted but practiced with the team last season. They saw the defensive effort first-hand. 

Two junior college transfers — guards Zach Copeland and William Tinsley of Colfax — along with freshmen Elijah Clarance and Taylor Bruninga are being brought up to defensive speed as quickly as possible.

"I love them," said Fayne of the newcomers. "They've all come out with energy, ready, eager to play. They're very talented. We have talent from all over the country. It's going to be a good year."

The leadership of the departed veterans — particularly four-year performers Lee and Wills — also needs to be filled.

Evans and Fayne said they are trying to do their part in the leadership department. Evans, who is helping Clarance as much as possible at point guard, is recovering from surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder in April and can't participate in contact drills.

"Being a voice who was always being behind the voice (of Lee) and always seeing him talk and him lead, I'm trying to find my way in finding out how to do it without playing right now," said Evans, who hopes to be cleared by doctors in another month. 

Fayne, who joined ISU last year, said he also closely observed Lee "and the way he led, the way he went through practices and games and workouts, and how everyone went with him."

"You have to show it. You can't be out of shape and be a leader," said Muller. "Our leaders last year were never out of shape. Never."

After a workout Sunday night, Muller told his team they were doing fine.

"But fine is not good enough to win at a high level," said the ISU coach. "No one is doing bad. A lot of it this summer is trying to develop the leadership and understanding how hard it is for the new guys, but also the returners in new roles."

Schedule nearly complete: Muller said ISU is waiting on one more opponent for a home game to complete its nonconference schedule.

The Redbirds open the season Nov. 11 at Florida Gulf Coast. ISU travels to Nevada for the Mountain West/MVC Challenge on Nov. 29 and will play at Mississippi on Dec. 16. 

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy responded to Muller's tweet about a home-and-home series with a power-five conference school after ISU was left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels will come to Redbird Arena next season.

ISU will be home against Tulsa, Murray State and UIC with the dates to be announced. The Redbirds also are in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 16, 17 and 19 and at Brigham Young on Dec. 6.

The MVC schedule should be released in late August.

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

Outbrain